Archive for the ‘Linguistics’ Category

Cushy comes from Khushi

April 6, 2008

Via the ever entertaining Jenny Davidson’s Light reading blog, I got a link to this piece, which is a review by Christian Tyler of a book called The secret life of words: how English became English by Henry Hitchings:

Did you know, for instance, that “cushy” has nothing to do with cushions but is from khush, Hindi for “pleasant”?

Of course, the movement of words from English to other languages is equally interesting:

It’s intriguing to note that the movement of words has not just been one way: Swahili has the charming kiplefti for a traffic island, and Japanese engejiringu for an engagement ring.

Take a look!

Biography of Nim Chimpsky

March 30, 2008

Chimpsky is not a stranger for the readers of this blog; over  at Salon, there is an interview with Elizabeth Hess, the author of Nim Chimpsky: the chimp who would be human, a biography of Nim, and the descriptions as well as some sections of the interview are heart-breaking:

The former graduate students in New York believe that Nim had no idea he was a chimpanzee. One of them suggested to me that Nim might have thought he was going to grow up, lose all his facial and body hair and eventually look like the people who were around him. That would be a reasonable supposition. Throughout his life, Nim preferred to be with humans.

Toward the end of his life, he was paired with an ex-circus chimp named Sally Jones. That, I think, was the first deep relationship he had with his own species. They were inseparable. Sally was a lot older, a lot milder. Nim had a reputation for breaking out of his cage in Texas. When Sally came, he would break out of his cage, but then he’d remember her, and he’d go back and get her. He’d lead her out of the cage and they’d go on a little romp together. Cleveland Amory was always afraid that Nim was going to run off into the woods. But he had no desire to run away. Nim would go to the nearest house and bring Sally with him, and they would raid the refrigerator, go through the closets and try on any shoes that were lying around, and sometimes they’d get into bed and turn on the TV.

He was also dangerous. Chris Byrne, the manager at [Amory’s] Black Beauty Ranch that Nim was closest to, learned that when Nim broke out, the best thing to do was to just be completely calm. He’d see Nim at the door and he’d say, “Nim, welcome,” as if Nim had been invited over for cocktails. He’d let him sit down for a while. Then he’d slowly lead Sally back to the cage, and Nim would eventually follow.

Take a look!

Are shared linguistic norms essential for communication?

March 29, 2008

Mark Liberman does not think so:

Many people believe that stipulation of shared linguistic norms is essential to communication, or at least improves the efficiency and accuracy of communication. But on examination, this idea is transparent nonsense. Let me illustrate.

I’m one of the judges in the 2008 Tournament of Books at The Morning News, and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Díaz, has made it to the final round. Chapter One (“GhettoNerd at the End of the World, 1974-1987”) starts like this:

Our hero was not one of those Dominican cats everybody’s always going on about — he wasn’t no home-run hitter or a fly bachatero, not a playboy with a million hots on his jock.

This sentence contains an instance of negative concord, a non-standard grammatical feature that isn’t part of my dialect of English. But this doesn’t cause me any trouble — it wouldn’t have been any easier for me to understand the sentence if Díaz had chosen to write “wasn’t a home-run hitter” instead of “wasn’t no home-run hitter”.

The same sentence also includes several non-standard words or phrases. Cats is an antique piece of hipster slang; fly is slightly more recent; bachatero I didn’t know, but it seems to mean a singer of bachatas, a kind of Dominican popular music; hots on his jock I can more or less guess. I wouldn’t use any of these, and didn’t even know some of them, but Díaz got his idea across, and the non-standard lexical choices are part of what he communicates.

Oscar Wao is a terrific book, but of course I could have chosen Huckleberry Finn, an even better book that’s even denser with “incorrect grammar” and non-standard word usage:

You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.

Here’s a final example, of a very different kind. Seth Roberts is visiting Penn to give a talk, and on Thursday I had him over for dinner with 15 or 20 students in Ware College House, where I’m faculty master. After dinner we traded favorite-books recommendations for a while, and I suggested Gibbon’s Decline and Fall. As a result, I took it off the shelf and read myself to sleep with Chapter XXVI (365-395 A.D.), “Manners of the Pastoral Nations”, which reminded me of how much I like Gibbon.

But it also reminded me of the changes in English style and usage since 1776. Consider the following sentence, discussing the Roman world’s reaction to the great earthquake and tidal wave “in the second year of the reign of Valentinian and Valens”:

They recollected the preceding earthquakes, which had subverted the cities of Palestine and Bithynia; they considered these alarming strokes as the prelude only of still more dreadful calamities, and their fearful vanity was disposed to confound the symptoms of a declining empire and a sinking world.

No one writes like Gibbon now. This may be our loss, but it’s also our reality. Along with the rhetorical differences, there are some changes in grammar and usage. We no longer use subvert in the OED’s sense 1, “to overthrow, raze to the ground (a town or city, a structure, edifice)”. We no longer put only after the word it limits (“the prelude only of still more dreadful calamities”), except in fixed phrases like “by appointment only”.

But these differences don’t get between Gibbon and me to any significant extent. I wouldn’t enjoy him more, or understand him better, if someone modernized his language.

Take a look!

PS: As an aside, if our brains can fill in missing notes while listening to music, or missing lines while we are looking at a picture, why wouldn’t it fill in for a couple of words or some strange construction that we are not familiar with or do not understand to give us the global picture!

Language and thought, and a book recommendation!

February 26, 2008

[1] Just yesterday, we were wondering if thought precedes language; Mark Liberman at Language Log discusses the opposite question,

Were the basic characteristics of Newtonian physics determined by the way that Indo-European languages treat space and time?

Not surprisingly, the answer is no:

At least in lexicographic terms, the Indo-European languages do not, contrary to what Whorf says, share a linguistic history that predisposes their speakers unconsciously to a particular physics of time, distance, velocity and so on. In particular, the English words for those abstract physical concepts developed rather late, mostly as part of a conscious effort to import or develop explicit physical theories.

[2] Jenny at Light Reading gives her highest compliment to a book (which makes it a must-read):

 I read a most delightful novel this weekend while laid low with a bronchial ailment (still fairly under the weather, I’m afraid): Charles Stross’s The Atrocity Archives. Absolutely delightful! Len Deighton-H. P. Lovecraft mashup, with rather entrancing mathematical and computational asides–pretty much the perfect light reading, my highest compliment for any book…

Take a look and have fun!

Did thought precede language?

February 25, 2008

Bolles at Babel’s Dawn, after reading a recent piece by Chomsky on the evolution of language wonders if his own thinking and ideas on the problem need overhauling:

The founder of modern linguistics, Noam Chomsky, was famous for decades for his dismissal of interest in the evolution of language. In recent years he has moderated his position and in a lecture recently made available on line (here, registration required) he outlines his scenario for how language evolved. It is about as different from the account being developed on this blog as a theory can be, making it of keen interest because it forces me to ask whether I have gone hopelessly astray and should change course quite sharply.

Bolles goes on to summarise the arguments of Chomsky in a lucid manner:

Suppose I say

John is too angry to eat.

I can take that to mean John won’t eat anything because he is angry, but it could also be understood to mean I won’t eat John because he is too angry. This last reading may seem ridiculous, but it is exactly how we would be likely to interpret the sentence John is too angry to invite. I won’t invite John because he is so angry. As Chomsky says in one of his charmingly gotcha sentences, “The surface form in themselves tell us little about the interpretation.” [p. 16]

The syntactical explanation for the different interpretations is that the verb to eat requires an object, e.g., eat an apple. If no object is presented, we assume a general one (won’t eat anything). The verb to invite requires an indirect object, e.g., invite to a party. If that is missing, we assume a general one (won’t invite to anything). The meaning of the sentence came from “the generative procedures that yield the expressions, but cannot be detected in the physical signal.” He goes on:

For that reason it seemed then [fifty years ago]—and still seems—that the language acquired must have the basic properties of an internalized explanatory theory. [p. 17]

That’s why language must be primarily an internal process and that any external features must be secondary: the surface structure of a sentence does not include enough information to make its meaning clear. To be understood we must have access to the generative mechanisms producing the sentence. A speaker generates and knows what it means because of the generative process. The listener reverse engineers the sentences, understanding them by discovering the rules that generated them.

In the late 1950s Chomsky argument carried the day because his opponent gave no place to any internal processes, either perceptual or conceptual. Behaviorism described only reflexive responses to unambiguous stimuli. The replacement school, cognitive psychology, gives us an internal symbol processor, but still has no room for sensation-based knowledge (perception). If you take as your axioms that animals are computers and language becomes meaningful by organizing symbols, it is hard to escape Chomsky’s logic. The only reason I can resist is that I believe animals think perceptually rather than conceptually, and that meaning comes from piloting attention rather than following syntactical rules.

Take a look!

PS: May be it is because I am not a native speaker of English; but, if somebody says John is too angry to invite, I would have assumed that John will not invite me because he is too angry; if it indeed is the meaning that Bolles attributes to the sentence that I have in my mind, I would have said John is too angry to be invited, or John is too angry for me to invite him. But given a context, I can see why I would infer the same meaning as Bolles advances to that sentence.

A linguistic question!

February 24, 2008

John Hawks puts together several links which ask and try to answer the question, namely, whether language extinction is a good thing. A very political, and emotional question, indeed! For example, consider Hawks’ quote from Pullum:

Pullum reflects on this point, paraphrasing it and calling for tolerance of this view:

In short, widespread faith in the ideal of linguistic and cultural assimilation should — especially in a democracy — be treated with respect and considered thoughtfully, not snapped at as if it were ignorant bigotry.

Which makes me sort of wonder just how sore this point is among linguists.

Having grown up in the Indian democracy that is both multilingual and multicultural, it is very difficult for me to accept the faith in the ideal of linguistic and cultural assimilation, however widespread it be.

Why is the social life of humans filled with innuendo, hypocrisy and taboo?

January 22, 2008

Steven Pinker, Martin Nowak and James Lee discuss the issue in their latest paper in PNAS titled The logic of indirect speech:

When people speak, they often insinuate their intent indirectly rather than stating it as a bald proposition. Examples include sexual come-ons, veiled threats, polite requests, and concealed bribes. We propose a three-part theory of indirect speech, based on the idea that human communication involves a mixture of cooperation and conflict. First, indirect requests allow for plausible deniability, in which a cooperative listener can accept the request, but an uncooperative one cannot react adversarially to it. This intuition is supported by a game-theoretic model that predicts the costs and benefits to a speaker of direct and indirect requests. Second, language has two functions: to convey information and to negotiate the type of relationship holding between speaker and hearer (in particular, dominance, communality, or reciprocity). The emotional costs of a mismatch in the assumed relationship type can create a need for plausible deniability and, thereby, select for indirectness even when there are no tangible costs. Third, people perceive language as a digital medium, which allows a sentence to generate common knowledge, to propagate a message with high fidelity, and to serve as a reference point in coordination games. This feature makes an indirect request qualitatively different from a direct one even when the speaker and listener can infer each other’s intentions with high confidence.

Take a look!

I/me/myself and other errors

December 12, 2007

In the old days when people studied traditional grammar, we could simply say, “The first person singular pronoun is “I” when it’s a subject and “me” when it’s an object,” but now few people know what that means. Let’s see if we can apply some common sense here. The misuse of “I” and “myself” for “me” is caused by nervousness about “me.” Educated people know that “Jim and me is goin’ down to slop the hogs,” is not elegant speech, not “correct.” It should be “Jim and I” because if I were slopping the hogs alone I would never say “Me is going. . . .” If you refer to yourself first, the same rule applies: It’s not “Me and Jim are going” but “I and Jim are going.”

So far so good. But the notion that there is something wrong with “me” leads people to overcorrect and avoid it where it is perfectly appropriate. People will say “The document had to be signed by both Susan and I” when the correct statement would be, “The document had to be signed by both Susan and me.” Trying even harder to avoid the lowly “me,” many people will substitute “myself,” as in “The suspect uttered epithets at Officer O’Leary and myself.”

“Myself” is no better than “I” as an object. “Myself” is not a sort of all-purpose intensive form of “me” or “I.” Use “myself” only when you have used “I” earlier in the same sentence: “I am not particularly fond of goat cheese myself.” “I kept half the loot for myself.” All this confusion can easily be avoided if you just remove the second party from the sentences where you feel tempted to use “myself” as an object or feel nervous about “me.” You wouldn’t say, “The IRS sent the refund check to I,” so you shouldn’t say “The IRS sent the refund check to my wife and I” either. And you shouldn’t say “to my wife and myself.” The only correct way to say this is, “The IRS sent the refund check to my wife and me.” Still sounds too casual? Get over it.

On a related point, those who continue to announce “It is I” have traditional grammatical correctness on their side, but they are vastly outnumbered by those who proudly boast “it’s me!” There’s not much that can be done about this now. Similarly, if a caller asks for Susan and Susan answers “This is she,” her somewhat antiquated correctness is likely to startle the questioner into confusion.

From this page of Common errors in English; link via Maud.

The electric effect of Shakespeare

December 11, 2007

Remember the Shakespearean functional shift that we discussed a while back?

Here is another piece on functional shifts, and what it does to our brains:

I took this hypothesis—about grammatical or linear shapes and their mapping onto shapes inside the brain—to a scientist, Professor Neil Roberts who heads MARIARC (the Magnetic Resonance and Image Analysis Research Centre) at the University of Liverpool. In particular I mentioned to him the linguistic phenomenon in Shakespeare which is known as “functional shift” or “word class conversion”. It refers to the way that Shakespeare will often use one part of speech—a noun or an adjective, say—to serve as another, often a verb, shifting its grammatical nature with minimal alteration to its shape. Thus in “Lear” for example, Edgar comparing himself to the king: “He childed as I fathered” (nouns shifted to verbs); in “Troilus and Cressida”, “Kingdomed Achilles in commotion rages” (noun converted to adjective); “Othello”, “To lip a wanton in a secure couch/And to suppose her chaste!”‘ (noun “lip” to verb; adjective “wanton” to noun).

The effect is often electric I think, like a lightning-flash in the mind: for this is an economically compressed form of speech, as from an age when the language was at its most dynamically fluid and formatively mobile; an age in which a word could move quickly from one sense to another, in keeping with Shakespeare’s lightning-fast capacity for forging metaphor. It was a small example of sudden change of shape, of concomitant effect upon the brain. Could we make an experiment out of it?

We decided to try to see what happens inside us when the brain comes upon sentences like “The dancers foot it with grace”, or “We waited for disclose of news”, or “Strong wines thick my thoughts”, or “I could out-tongue your griefs” or “Fall down and knee/The way into his mercy”. For research suggests that there is one specific part of the brain that processes nouns and another part that processes verbs: but what happens when for a micro-second there is a serious hesitation between whether, in context, this is noun or verb?

The result?

Preliminary results suggest this:

(A) With the simple control sentence (“You said you would accompany me”), NO N400 or P600 effect because it is correct both semantically and syntactically.

(B) With “You said you would charcoal me”, BOTH N400 and P600 highs, because it violates both grammar and meaning.

(C) With “You said you would incubate me”, NO P600 (it makes grammatical sense) but HIGH N400 (it does not make semantic sense).

(D) With the Shakespearian “You said you would companion me”, HIGH P600 (because it feels like a grammatical anomaly) but NO N400 (the brain will tolerate it, almost straightaway, as making sense despite the grammatical difficulty). This is in marked contrast with B above.

So what? First, it was as Guillaume Thierry had predicted. It meant that “functional shift” was a robust phenomenon: that is to say, it had a distinct and unique effect on the brain. Instinctively Shakespeare was right to use it as one of his dramatic tools. Second the P600 surge means the brain was thus primed to look out for more difficulty, to work at a higher level, whilst still accepting that fundamental sense was being made.

In other words, while the Shakespearian functional shift was semantically integrated with ease, it triggered a syntactic re-evaluation process likely to raise attention and give more weight to the sentence as a whole. Shakespeare is stretching us; he is opening up the possibility of further peaks, new potential pathways or developments. Our findings show how Shakespeare created dramatic effects by implicitly taking advantage of the relative independence—at the neural level—of semantics and syntax in sentence comprehension. It is as though he is a pianist using one hand to keep the background melody going, whilst simultaneously the other pushes towards ever more complex variations and syncopations.

Take a look!

Hat tip: Jonah Lehrer for the link.

On the usage of “according to me”

November 22, 2007

Geoffrey Pullum at Language Log on the usage of “according to me” by Umberto Eco:

I was surprised to hear Umberto Eco, interviewed on BBC Radio 4 this morning, using the phrase according to me several times. He seemed to think it is synonymous with “in my view”, or “the way I tell it”. It is not.

According to X has the peculiar property of only being properly used by people other than X. We can say, “According to her, the Jews control world banking”, and we mean that this global banking stranglehold stuff is her story about the Jews, and we are by no means committed to it.

The constraint is (somewhat) analogous to a similarly odd fact about lurk: you only describe other people’s actions using it. If I wait around outside your office trying not to be seen (not that I would, but I could), someone might say “Geoff Pullum has been lurking outside your office”, which is normal use of the language describing slightly nefarious behavior on my part. But if I say “I’m planning to come and lurk outside your office”, that would be deeply weird in a linguistic way, unless it was a joke.

I have only ever heard according to me from foreigners who have learned English imperfectly. One tends to think of Umberto Eco as a sort of polymathic cultural and linguistic European academic superstar who would spot this sort of subtlety. But no, there he was, talking about what he says in his new book, and saying “according to me”. Stop it, Umberto. Get a clue. This is not an idiom to use about yourself. Use it when imputing views to others, especially (though not exclusively) when you are skeptical about those views. Never use it to say that something is your own view.

There is also a discussion on logophoric pronouns at the end of the post as an update and footnote. Very interesting stuff; take a look!