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.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

It's August 6th, again

I have some pressing things to attend to today and I'll have to forego my usual rant about Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  However, you can read my previous posts on this:

2009: An almost unmentioned anniversary
2010: The most destructive use ever of weapons of mass destruction
2011: Another August 6th
2012: Yet another August 6th
2013: August 6, 1945

This year I'll let Noam Chomsky guide us through the Nuclear Weapons Era.

Spoiler alert: It's not pretty.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

George Takei on The Daily Show

Last night on The Daily Show, George Takei talked very movingly with Jon Stewart about his childhood experience as a detainee in a US concentration camp detention facility.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The word is: "Jeopardy"

Last night (Monday July 21) on "Jeopardy" there was a clue that went something like "a single unit of language."  The response they wanted was "what is a word." That may be the most problematic answer they could have thought of, given that besides words all the following can be considered "single units of language":
  • Distinctive features (units of articulation, e.g. Labial, Voiced, etc.)
  • Segments (consonants & vowels, each of which is a unit composed of distinctive features: [b])
  • Phonemes (psychologically salient units that signal contrast: /b/)
  • Syllables (units of pronunciation, most commonly a consonant + a vowel but there are shapes, depending on the language: [ba], [bo], [bla], blab], and so on)
  • Morphemes (units that refer in some way: {kæt})

When we get to morphemes we can begin to slide into "words," but it's tricky. The "word" (we use the <_> to enclose an orthographic representation) is composed of one morpheme, but what about ?  It's composed of two morphemes. Still, it's a "single unit" when considered within a larger structure, say a Noun Phrase (NP).  In the word is a single unit under what we call an N' ("N-bar"), a constituent paired with , which is a Determiner (Det).  If we expand to we get also living under a single N', still paired with that Det and still a "single unit" of language.

In other words, it's more complicated than most people realize. And, I humbly submit, *this* is what "language arts" teachers should be showing our children!

Aruskipasipxañanakasakipunirakispäwa!  A "single word" in Aymara meaning 'I know from personal knowledge that it's good if we all make the effort to communicate with one another.'

Saturday, July 19, 2014

"Nostalgia as repression"

Weird Al Yankovic has a new song out called "Word Crimes."  It's quite catchy and fun to listen to. It includes many complaints and grievances regarding the use of language similar to those that pop up with depressing frequency on Facebook, compiled by self-styled "grammar" experts and forwarded by people whose knowledge of the science of language is limited to what they may have learned over the years from so-called "language arts" teachers.

As with the typical Facebook "grammar" post, these complaints constitute a very mixed bag.  Many, if not most, are not really (from a linguist's perspective) about "grammar" at all, but rather about ancillary issues: spelling, punctuation, and so on.  For example, the difference between it's (the contraction of it is) and its (the possessive determiner) is strictly a spelling issue.  There is no doubt that English speakers know the difference, that is they have separate lexical entries for these homophones in their mental dictionaries. And there's no doubt that when English speakers say it's a shame they know they are producing a contraction of it is a shame; when they say its handle broke they are referring to something's handle, maybe a cup: the cup's handle broke.

Other sets of homophones can be dealt with similarly: there their they're; too two; four for fore; and so on.

One of the "crimes" Weird Al mentions: the confusion of, who and whom.  This is a bit different. The distinction here reflects a time when English was a more highly inflected language, with word endings signaling the case of a noun or pronoun.  The English noun boat had forms that included bāt for singular subject and object; bātas for plural subject and object; bātes and bāta for singular and plural possessives respectively; and bāte and bātum for singular and plural use with prepositions.

Like 'boat,' once upon a time the English interrogative/relative pronoun who (earlier hwā) had different forms for different cases.  Three of these have survived: who (the subject form); whom (the object form), and whose (the possessive form).

And, as with the forms of boat, a leveling process has been going on over the centuries. We now have only three forms for boat: boat, boats, and boat's.  The last two are now homophones, so phonologically there's just /bot/ and /bots/.  Somehow, though, English speakers know when they mean 'more than one boat' versus 'belonging to a boat'.

As for the forms of who, there's been a leveling process going on here as well. Who saw you? still works, of course, but Whom did you see? is now almost always Who did you see?  This is one of those things that makes the grammar nazis cry, but it's perfectly normal. Languages change. And English has changed quite a bit, as anyone who tries to read this sentence will realize:

Fæder ure ϸu ϸe ært on heofonum, si ϸin nama gehalgod.
Insisting that people keep using whom even though, in normal English, it has nearly disappeared, is not unlike trying to make people go back to using fæder for father.  Kind of silly.

In a book titled On Literacy, Pattison (page 162)* noted that trying to force people to use forms of language that have fallen or are falling out of usage constitutes "nostalgia as repression."  This is an apt term for this form of what amounts to abuse on the part of people who profess to be language experts, but who in fact are sadly undereducated in that area.


*Pattison, Robert. 1984. On Literacy: The Politics of the Word from Homer to the Age of Rock. Oxford University Press.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Those ivory tower perfessers

In the midst of a discussion over on Facebook, regarding the value and purpose of education, some commenters expressed views suggesting that they believe that the purpose of education is preparation for a job or jobs. There was also, the usual American folk notion of higher education being dominated by "liberals" who spend their class time "indoctrinating" students into particular "ideologies," mostly of course leftist (rightwing or conservative views are not, of course, "ideologies").  A number of misconceptions about the nature, purpose, and content of higher education emerged, and I promised to take it seriously and attempt to address some of the issues raised.  Only the gods know why...

Friday, July 4, 2014

Yet another 4th of July...

Last year, on July 4, I wrote:
I've said it before and I'll repeat it here: The "American Revolution" was not a revolution. In a revolution, the people on the bottom end up on top. What happened in the British colonies that eventually became the United States was a beheading. The level of rulers at the very top, the British Crown, was lopped off. The people at the top in the colonies remained on top, while slaves remained slaves, women remained women, Native Americans remained pretty much nobody.

This came at the end of my tally of mostly complaints and grievances regarding the state current state of the US, some of which is still relevant: use of killer drones overseas; Guantanamo; ongoing Rethuglican obstruction of any and every thing the President tries to accomplish; and so on. One of the things that stood out last year was the Supreme Court's disemboweling of the Voting Rights Act.

And now, a year later, the Supremes have been at it again. They have decided that a corporation like Hobby Lobby can decide which health care benefits to give their female employees under the Affordable Care Act, based on their "sincerely held religious beliefs."

I'm not buying it (I'm also never going into Hobby Lobby).  Religious beliefs, no matter how "sincerely" held, should not in my opinion exempt anyone from the laws and regulations of the land. You should not be allowed to bring your imaginary friends into court.

Happy Fourth!

Monday, June 30, 2014

The Hobby Lobby malfunction

Here's the thing: No matter how "sincerely" you believe in them, your imaginary friends should have absolutely no say in how you treat your employees. Period.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Consequences of dysfunctional enculturation

This happened a day or so ago, in New Jersey.  A woman was brutally beaten in public by a MacDonald's coworker, her 2-year old son tries to stop it, and the adults stand around taking video.  Welcome to America.

And then, on CNN's New Day (Saturday) the hosts interviewed a "licensed psychologist" about this, and he actually came scarily close to explaining it, but without the anthropological insight (shouldn't psychologists, almost by definition, have to know some anthropology?).  Anyway, the CNN guys asked how this could happen, and the psychologist pointed out that the adults had been socialized (we would say enculturated) into being witnesses, bystanders, not participants; the 2-year old, on the other hand, was not "socialized" and thus didn't know he was supposed to just watch or try to film it.

If only this psychologist had known about psychological anthropologist Francis Hsu, who wrote about a thing called Independence Training way back in the 50s.  Independence Training, in the extreme form we see in America, turns us into unempathetic, socially irresponsible psychopaths: she's not beating me, what's the problem?  I'll be writing an email as soon as I get his name...

Friday, June 13, 2014

Culturally-induced psychosis

President Obama held a Q&A session Tumblr yesterday (June 10).  At some point questions about the seemingly never-ending series of school and other shootings we have been experiencing - about one a week - came up.

As reported on WUSA, the President responded with the following:
"We're the only developed country on Earth where this happens.... And it happens now once a week.  And it's a one-day story. There's no place else like this."
Casting about for ways to understand the problem, President Obama said:
"the United States does not have a monopoly on crazy people."
Right.  We are not the only nation with crazy people mixed into the population.  We are however, to a large extent, the only (or at least one of very few) nations that actively socializes and enculturates our people into craziness.  Or rather, into the kind of behavior that can all too easily slide into what we are seeing now, something I am calling culturally-induced psychosis.

All human cultures need to produce people who are both autonomous, independent agents and also willing to participate in networks of obligations and rights that tie them to others in the culture.  So, there must be independence training (IT), which turns out individuals, and dependence training (DT), which creates group members. One of the important ways that cultures vary is in the degree of emphasis they place on these two let's call them modes of enculturation. As anthropologist Francis Hsu noted back in the 1950s, one major difference between traditional Chinese culture and traditional US culture was precisely this emphasis: China emphasized DT; the US emphasized IT.

Let's be clear that both IT and DT are required for a culture to run smoothly. Too much emphasis on DT and you might get a society of people unwilling or unable to take risks, unable to make decisions for themselves, and so on. But too much emphasis on IT and you might get, well...  the USA.

Put briefly, too much IT gets you people who are unwilling to acknowledge the reciprocal rights and responsibilities that bind members of a healthy society together. And with that, you get people who are capable of carrying the extreme social irresponsibility of murder.

Anthropologist Walter Goldschmidt, in the 60s, wrote that we can judge a culture without being ethnocentric. We can base our judgement on how good a job the culture does of satisfying the physical and psychological needs of its adherents. One of Goldschmidt's criteria had to do with whether or not the culture discouraged crime and violence.  On this and other criteria, our culture is failing.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

My problem with Maya Angelou (and Jesse Jackson, and...)

This post is prompted by Maya Angelou's passing a few days ago. I was privileged to see her perform at UNF some years back, and of course she was very, very good at what she did.  What she was not good at is being a linguist.  And she's not alone.

When the Oakland School Board tried to declare African American Vernacular English (AAVE, or Ebonics) a language separate from English back in 1996, a shitstorm ensued, as everyone in the country (it seemed) came down on them.  The school board made two fatal errors:
(1) They used the term "genetic" in trying to trace the West African roots that help make AAVE different from English. This was a mistake, because people were able to take a descriptive term out of context and accuse the school board of claiming that there were "genes for" AAVE, or something like that, which is of course biologically false. 
(2) In attempting to claim the status of "language" for AAVE, they broke a rule established by Max Weinreich back in the 1940s: "A language is a dialect with an army and a navy."  Nearly all linguists know that there is no qualitative difference between a "language" and a "dialect" and that, indeed, everyone speaks a dialect.  Languages are social constructions of convenience that encompass in some cases widely divergent dialects; dialects, the stuff on the ground, are what is real.
So... by making these errors, they left themselves open to all sorts of ridicule.  We can ignore the ridicule coming from the Cracker class, at least for now.  But the ridicule also came from people who one wishes had known better, and the result was yet more evidence that we need linguistics and anthropology taught to everybody, in the public schools:

Maya Angelou:

  • The very idea that African American language is a language separate and apart is very threatening, because it can encourage young men and women not to learn standard English.

Jesse Jackson:

  • I understand the attempt to reach out to these children, but this is an unacceptable surrender borderlining on disgrace. . . . It's teaching down to our children and it must never happen.

    And, perhaps most disturbing...
  • You don't have to go to school to learn to talk garbage.
No, Maya, what encourages students "not to learn standard English" is just the opposite: pretending that there's no linguistic difference, that AAVE consists of nothing but mistakes and deviations from the standard, is what fools students into imagining that they already know the standard.

And no, Jesse, making students aware of the systemic linguistic differences between AAVE and standard is not "teaching down" to them; it is respecting their intelligence and ability to live up to what ought to be our expectations for them.

And of course, Jesse, AAVE is not "garbage."  Decades of research by far too many language scholars to list here has shown that if AAVE is "garbage," then so is English and every other language on the planet.  And that was a pretty despicable claim for one who claims to be a civil rights leader.

The reality is, we need people with real knowledge about languages and culture (i.e. linguists and anthropologists) in leadership roles in this country.  Instead, we get people who are illiterate in these areas, people who are only capable of vomiting up what amount to racist claims.  Yes, racist.

By the way, there were even Senate hearings on this.  If you ever want to be driven to poke your eyeballs and eardrums out with toothpicks, watch US Senators try to ask questions of linguists.

Friday, May 23, 2014

This does not help...

Oh man, somebody please make it stop! This afternoon on NPR, in his into to Science Friday, host Ira Flatow began (and I'm working from memory) by talking about how hard physics is, and how theories often remain just that- theories- for a long time until they can be proven. I almost ran my car into a ditch. Like I say, I'm paraphrasing, but that was the gist.

This is not a good way to promote public understanding of science; email to Ira Flatow in the works...

Monday, May 19, 2014

Tarpon are "maniche"

So last night I was watching an episode of "River Monsters."  In this episode host Jeremy Wade was fishing for tarpon on Nicaragua's Miskito coast. One of the locals told him tarpon are "mannish"; the show's editing team were apparently unaware of the English provenience of the term, and in the subtitles they spelled it "maniche," maybe thinking it came from French or somewhere. I'm guessing they were thrown off by the pronunciation: [ˈmaniš] rather than [ˈmænɪš].

Also, this reminds me of an episode in which Andrew Zimmern of "Bizarre Foods" was visiting the same area.  He could not get the pronunciation of "oil-down" (a stew) correct: [ɔylˈdɔŋ].

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

"Critical thinking?"

Tomorrow I'm scheduled to participate in a workshop dealing with my university's general education requirements.  Specifically, we'll be discussing and presumably deciding somehow on how to teach and assess the learning of "critical thinking" in the "social sciences."  I am not looking forward to it, and the temptation is strong to go fishing...

I am not looking forward to it for several reasons, but the ones I want to mention here, if only to help gather my thoughts for tomorrow, are:
  • It pisses me off that we need to distinguish "critical thinking" in the social sciences from such thinking in the the "arts and humanities." 
  • It also pisses me off that there is an implicit, covert suggestion in the division of labor for this exercise that the "scientific method" can only be carried out quantitatively in the "natural sciences."
First of all, the scientific method is not limited to quantitative research; see my post about this on this blog.  Secondly, the division between "natural" and "social" science is bogus, a relic of the time when humans were thought to be separate from nature.  Science is science. Period.

For me as a linguist/anthropologist, "critical thinking" is best exemplified by the development of what I (following former mentor Robert Lawless) call cynical knowledge.  Cynical knowledge is the awareness, developed through critical inquiry, that beliefs and values that we take to be "natural" are in fact not only not natural, but are kept in place to support particular structures of power and authority. Two examples might illustrate this.

"Double negatives make a positive."  We hear this from our language arts and composition teachers almost from the time we enter school, so much so that we internalize it and defend it, sometimes vigorously.  And here's the thing: it's flat-out wrong.  There are languages as diverse as French, Spanish, Russian, and even Aymara that make use of multiple negative marking (negative agreement in linguistic parlance).  Even Anglo-Saxon, the precursor of modern English, used negative agreement.  The "rule" against "double negatives" was introduced by Anglican Bishop Robert Lowth in 1762; he based it on a false analogy with mathematics. "Double negatives" are as natural to human languages as nouns and verbs.  The cynical knowledge rests in the realization that this "rule" was fabricated to give English teachers another tool for terrorizing- I mean, assessing- schoolchildren.  It has no standing in the natural world.

"Stop breast-feeding your baby as early as possible."  This is a somewhat easier one.  We are mammals.  Mammal mothers feed their young milk until they don't need it anymore, i.e. until they can begin to process more adult foods.  And, once they're adults, most mammals normally lose the ability to digest lactose. Cynical knowledge informs us that the main reason for our focus on early weaning is so that the people who produce infant formula can make money.  In other words, this is a cultural value that functions to support capitalism.  It has nothing to do with improving the health of mothers or their babies, and indeed the research suggests that breast feeding is far more healthy for both than formula feeding.

So, these are thoughts I'm carrying into this meeting tomorrow, if I go.

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

Thursday, February 6, 2014

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."


Saturday, January 18, 2014

I hope they don't ban "linguistics nazi"

In today's online version of The New York Times, there is an essay by Etgar Keret titled "Sometimes 'Nazi' is the Right Word."  Keret explores the pros and cons of officially banning a word like "Nazi" from public usage in Israel.  I have opinions about that, but I don't live in Israel, and in any case that's not what I want to talk about right now.

The very first sentence in the essay is:
“NAZI” is a short word. It has only two syllables, like “rac-ist” or “kill-er.” 
I love it when people do things like this, because it lets me be a linguistics nazi by pointing out where someone has mistaken the folk model of language for the scientific model.  This is not the way linguists would divide these words into syllables. The correct way would be "ra-cist"  and "ki-ller."  Or, more properly, using phonetic symbols from the International Phonetic Alphabet (the little line ˈ is placed in front the stressed syllable):
[ˈre.səst]   [ˈkɪ.lər]
Notice that we can use a period, rather than a hyphen, to separate syllables.  Notice also that there's only one "l" in the phonetic rendition of "killer"; that's because there's only one "l" sound in that word, and in linguistics we don't put two sounds in there unless they really belong in there. 

Now, I don't expect Keret to write like a linguist in The New York Times.  But, then again, maybe I should.  This kind of thing perpetuates misconceptions about language that I have to correct every semester in my classes.

UPDATE (Jan 19).  A friend reminds me that Keret's division of "rac-ist" and "kill-er" does reflect the morphological divisions in these words.  So, "racist" is race + -ist, and "killer" is kill + -er.  These are derivational suffixes, as opposed to inflectional suffixes like the -s in cats and dogs

Perhaps taking divisions between morphemes to reflect syllable divisions is further evidence of the lack of phonological awareness among many otherwise educated people, especially English speakers. 

It's already 2014, and what've I done lately?

On December 31, 2013, I made a resolution to try to write a blog post every day in 2014.  So far, I've written one. Oh well.

A story that appeared this morning via the Zinn Education Project prompted me to reflect a little. The story is about how, 45 years ago today, President LBJ had a luncheon for women who at the time were viewed as being active in various ways.  Among the guests was Eartha Kitt, famous for the song "Santa Baby" and also for being, for a time, Catwoman.  When she was invited to say something, she stood up and, in LBJ's face, criticized the Vietnam War.  For some time after that, she found it hard to get work. It was like that back then.

I had not heard about this, and that revelation got me wishing that I had become more politically aware earlier on.  People say that you're liberal when you're young, and then conservative as you get older.  I am the reversal of that process.  In January 1968 I was a senior at William & Mary, just waking up, partly because I had extra energy available from having to stop the competitive running that got me into William & Mary in the first place.  I was taking Russian, not for blatantly political reasons so much as to be able to read the fascinating writing I had seen on signs and banners in the film Doctor Zhivago.  I read the Communist Manifesto, not as a required thing, but to see what the Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) members who kept coming around trying to get me to join were so jacked up about; and surprise, some of it made sense.

I was already a little bit preset towards cynicism with regards to the official US line on the Soviet Union, "communism," and such.  Of course, in public school in the 1950s I had practiced diving under my school desk at the sound of the air raid sirens. The desks were wooden...  At least we could say that we were close enough to strategic targets like Washington, Camp David, and Fort Ritchie that we might be, marginally, on somebody's radar.  At the same time, though, as a high school distance runner my coach had lent out books on the great distance runners of that time, many of whom were from Eastern Bloc countries.  Reading about them, they seemed like pretty normal, even admirable, people.

After graduation, in the summer of 1968, a friend and I wandered around behind the "Iron Curtain" for a few weeks looking for the Red Menace, but all we found were open, generous people and a horrible knockoff of Coca Cola (the People's Cola, we called it). In Prague we spent a little time with one of those athletes I had read about, Emil Zátopek, and found him and others not only normal and admirable, but distinctly proud of the direction socialism was taking in what was then Czechoslovakia.

Also in Prague, we visited the North Vietnam Information Agency, and got a glimpse of their side of the story: photos of bombings, people and buildings blown apart. We were doing to them what we said they were doing to us, except that it was all taking place in their country, and we were the invaders. This was sobering.

There's more, but I'll save it for another post.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Bilbo's cold

Nerd alert! As many of you know, JRR Tolkien, author of 'The Hobbit' and 'Lord of the Rings,' was a historical linguist. I was just re-reading a bit of The Hobbit and noticed his linguistics coming out in his description of Bilbo's cold (caught riding those barrels down the river) at Laketown (near the end of the chapter 'A Warm Welcome'). He notes that for a time, Bilbo's public speeches were limited to "Thag you very buch." This happens when you're congested and have difficulty producing nasal consonants, which then revert to the homorganic non-nasal. 

Or, as I tell my students, 'a cold in my nose' becomes 'a cold id by dose.'