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!