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.'