Thursday, August 6, 2020

Another August 6th

Today is the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, followed shortly thereafter by the bombing of Nagasaki.  So far, watching the News (CNN, MSNBC) I haven't caught any mention of it.

I'll let my past posts speak for themselves:











Sunday, July 5, 2020

English is complicated?

Some folks on social media lately have been expressing concern about how "complicated" English is.  There are a couple of things a linguist might want to say about that.

First, we have to be clear that we are talking about the language, not the writing system.  The English writing system is indeed complicated, but not because the language itself is complicated.  The writing system is complicated because it was first developed for Old English or Anglo-Saxon back before the year 1000 CE.  It was developed by Christian missionaries who mostly used the Latin alphabet, and it was not bad.  The vowels a e i o u had their Latin qualities (pretty much modern Spanish).  A word like Moon (for the Moon) was pronounced like modern English moanHus (house) rhymed with modern loose.  All the written consonants in cniht (knight) were pronounced.  These sounds changed, and some disappeared, over the years, but how we write them did not change so much.  We can safely that English spelling is a nightmare.  George Bernard Shaw captured this with his humorous observation that we could spell fish as ghoti (gh from enough, o from women, and ti from nation).

If anything, English grammar has simplified over the years.  In Old English, nouns had cases like modern Russian and German, so the word for 'person,' folc, varied depending on whether it was singular or plural as well as whether it was being used as a subject, object, possessor, or object of a preposition: subjects and objects singular and plural folc; possessors folces, folca; prepositionals folce, folcum.  This meant that word order was somewhat less important in Old English. In these example, the words for king and bishop do not change form, but the definite article does (ϸ is a rune letter that represented the 'th' sounds):
Se cyning meteϸ ϸone biscop.    'the king met the bishop'
ϸone cyning meteϸ se biscop.     'the bishop met the king'
Old English verbs, too, were more complicated than their modern reflexes.  They were conjugated for person, number, tense, and mode.  One brief example, the verb dēman (to judge) in the present indicative:  (I) dēmde; (you) dēmdest; (she/he) dēmde; (we/you-all/they) dmaϸ.
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While English has lost some of its complexity, the one thing that probably troubles adult learners most is the auxiliary verb (AUX) DO that makes an appearance in question-formation.  Note the following:
Statement:   Cats eat mice. 
Question:     Do cats eat mice?
Where did that do come from?  English is the only language I know about that forms questions in this way (though there may be others).  The answer lies in realizing that the basic rule for question-formation in English is "Move AUX" which means the Auxiliary verb is moved to the front of the sentence.  In sentences that already have an auxiliary verb, things are pretty simple.  Here the AUX will is moved to form the question:
Statement:   The cats will eat the mice. 
Question:     Will the cats eat the mice?
There appears to be no AUX in the statement.  Or isn't there?  It turns out that all English sentences have a place for an AUX, but the place can be unoccupied.  But to follow the "Move AUX" rule and form a question, if the AUX position is empty, we have to create a "dummy AUX" and then move it:
Statement:   Cats ___ eat mice.    →    Cats DO eat mice.
Question:     DO cats eat mice?
Just one more bit of complication.  Suppose the sentence is Our cat eats mice.  Look what happens:
Statement:             Our cat eats mice.
Prep for question:  Our cat DO eats mice.  →    Our cat DOES eat mice.
Question:               Does our cat eat mice?
Note that the -s on eat moves to AUX before AUX is moved to form the question.  There are explanations for why this happens, but they will take us too deep into the weeds of English syntax. For now, let's just say that while English is not as complicated as many people think, it does have its quirks.

Saturday, July 4, 2020

Irregardless...

For some reason, people on Facebook (at least) are recently upset about irregardless existing in the Merriam-Webster dictionary of English, despite the fact that it has been around in various sources since at least 1912.  Most references to the word label it as "erroneous," or an example of substandard or dialectal English.

Some of these folks claim that irregardless is not a word, but this is clearly wrong.  Irregardless is a string of four syllables, with one prominent stress on -gard-.  This is a pretty good definition of a word in English (but not necessarily all languages!).

Furthermore, irregardless is a completely legal example of English Morphophonology, which has to do with the sound of words and smaller things (prefixes, for example) when they appear in context.

English has a Negative Prefix, /in-/, which attaches to adjectives to negate their meaning: for example inedible, indecent, etc.  This prefix is pronounced in several different ways, depending on the beginning sound of the word it attaches to:

  • If the word starts with a vowel, it's pronounced in- inactive, inedible, inoperable, etc.
  • If the words starts with a consonant, in- assimilates to the articulation of the consonant: for example, if the consonant is Labial, /m/ is used: impossible;  if the consonant is Alveolar, /n/ is used: indelible; and so on.
Now here's where it gets interesting.  If the consonant is a Liquid (/l/ or /r/) the /n/ assimilates to those consonants:

  • illegal  /in-/  →  /il-/
  • irrational  /in-/  →  /ir-/

So what we can conclude is that not only is irregardless a perfectly good English word, but it also follows the rules of English word-formation.

Irregardless of what some people might think of it.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Cultural dysfunction

One sign that a culture is dysfunctional is that people value their "individual rights and liberties" over their social responsibility to wear masks and and practice physical distancing during a global pandemic...

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

IT and the need for police

So, briefly, from a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away....
The move to defund police departments runs into trouble as soon as we start thinking about the nature of human societies. In small-scale societies, where people might be organized into foraging bands or horticulture-based villages, we would typically see maybe between twenty and 100 individuals, many related by blood or marriage. Also typically, enculturation of children would stress Dependence Training (DT), a mode of upbringing that emphasizes the social ties between group members and social responsibility to the group. When an individual becomes disruptive by, say, stealing, or acting aggressively toward other group members, they will be sanctioned. If the offense is great enough, they might be banished or even killed. The punishment would have the weight of group consensus; there are no "police" in such societies.
In large-scale agricultural/industrial societies, which have developed only in the last 5K years or so, populations become much larger and more dense. People are no longer related to everyone else, they more often than not don't even know each other. Enculturation moves away from DT and shifts toward Independence Training (IT). Individuals' rights outweigh social responsibility. This shift is exacerbated by Capitalism, which is only really a few hundred years old. IT exalts the Individual over the group, and the Individual finds it easier to commit socially irresponsible behavior: theft, physical violence, homicide, etc. Because there are too many people for the group to function in a cohesive way, a special class of group members has to come into play: the Police.
And this is why we will probably always need some level of policing. At least until we find a way to change our mode of enculturation to value dependence over independence.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

The wrong frame

We keep hearing in the News about the economic disaster Coronavirus has wrought upon us: so many jobs lost, so many unemployed, people unable to pay rent or buy food, and so on.  The frame within which this narrative thrives is a worldview in which people's worth is shackled to the job they have.  Jobless, not renting their labor to the capitalist class, they are worth nothing.  Not even worth having health care, because their health care is also shackled to their job.  Basically, without a job you shouldn't expect to be alive.

I would like to propose a counter-narrative.  People are not "unemployed."  People are unable to go to work because of the danger of being infected by a Virus.  The "job," i.e. the work they were doing, still exists, it was not "lost."  Was it?  Presumably it will still have to be done, when it's safe for someone to do it.

In a decent country, the Virus would have happened, but the consequences would have been different.  People who could not continue doing their jobs would have remained "employed," with pay and benefits.  No doubt the Government would have to chip in, substantially, but people's lives would not have had to be so disrupted by the tangential effects of the Virus.

This decent country would have to be "socialist," to some extent, though a better label might be humanistic.  This requires a different framing of human worth and work, something the US seems incapable of.

Of course, a decent country would not have allowed a grifter sociopath to become president in the first place. 


Friday, April 3, 2020

Spam comments

Fans/followers of The Cranky Linguist:

In the last few days I noticed that I had a huge number of spam comments (penis enlargement, herbal sexual enhancement, etc.) on some fairly recent posts.  I managed (I think) to delete them all. Also, I think I managed to keep most of the earlier legitimate comments, but if one of yours was deleted, my apologies.

For a time while I was doing this, I turned off commenting.  Commenting is back on now, but I have it set to "always moderate."  Hopefully this will keep the crazy crap off the blog.

Another August 6th

Today is the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, followed shortly thereafter by the bombing of Nagasaki.  So far, watching the New...