Archive for April, 2010

You’re not listening to me!

April 30, 2010

Another cartoon for the weekend: a Zits on communication hang ups:

Here, the person doing the talking is female and the person (apparently) not listening is male, and this configuration is conventionally associated with communication hangups, especially (but not only) in mixed-gender couples; “he just doesn’t listen to me”, the women complain. (In real life, you can sometimes find male couples where one man — or each man — complains about the other.)

But in the cartoon the person doing the talking is also a parent and the person (apparently) not listening a teenage child, and this configuration too is conventionally associated with communication hangups.

Put the two conventional associations together, and you get an especially potent combination of beliefs, that teenage boys just pay no attention to what their mothers are saying.

Interpreting compounds

April 30, 2010

A cartoon for the weekend, from Hilary Price’s Rhymes With Orange:

Noun-noun compounds are sometimes hard to interpret because the semantic relationship between the two nouns is so distant (canoe wife, for instance); you have to know a lot to supply the connection. Both Language Log and this blog frequently remark on such “distant” N+N compounds, especially (but not only) in headlines, where they’re a useful device for headline writers struggling to convey whole situations in a few words — but are baffling to readers who aren’t in the know.

Looking ahead to future postings, I’ll refer to distant N+N compounds as constituting a subtype of Type X composites. Ordinary N+N compounds are, in contrast, Type O composites, and the semantic relation between their parts is drawn from a relatively small set of relationships.

Particular examples can be ambiguous as between Type O and Type X. The famous example pumpkin bus (well, famous if you’re into N+N compounds) can be understood as Type O, in which case there are several sub-ambiguities, depending on which of the canonical semantic relationship is intended (‘bus that looks like a pumpkin, is in the shape of a pumpkin’, ‘bus containing pumpkins, bus that is full of pumpkins’, ‘bus for (transporting) pumpkins’, ‘bus made out of pumpkins’); there’s even a non-compound interpretation in which pumpkin is an adjective referring to a color).

But then there are Type X interpretations, no end of them, all involving buses somehow or another connected to pumpkins, or a pumpkin. In the famous example, the bus in question was the one that went past a pumpkin patch. You had to have been there.

Poodle skirt in the cartoon is just a Type O compound, but there are still several possible interpretations. The conventionalized sense is historically a resemblance compound (‘skirt that looks like a poodle’), but there are other possibilities: in particular, it could be a composition compound (‘a skirt made from poodles’), which is what Cruella de Vil, with her antipathy to dogs, was hoping for. Too bad, Cruella.

What IS that garment?

April 29, 2010

From the 10percent site, an offering aimed at gay men:

The question is: what is the garment the model is wearing? (Not the Cactus Belt Buckle, though that’s what the ad is focussing on and it’s remarkable in its own right, but the thing the belt is attached to.) What’s its function, and what is it called? I’ll give you a minute to think.


Dudetalk in the Arctic

April 29, 2010

Bizarro takes up Dudetalk:

The cartoon walrus packs into a single sentence several English usages that some people stereotypically associate with adolescents (though these stereotypical associations are not entirely accurate, or even close to accurate in some cases): the topic-introducing discourse particle so; dudes ‘guys, men, people’, especially in compounds of the form X dudes; adjectives in -y (like pointy); unspecific things; quotative like; and free-standing whatever. The cartoon mocks these usages. (There’s a considerable literature on several of them, and most of them have gotten at least a passing mention in Language Log or on this blog.)

But it also mocks the users of such items, as sloppy thinkers, vapid, lazy, and ignorant; the items are just symptoms of these deeper defects in adolescents. So [that's a resultative, not a topic-introducing, so] it’s no surprise that these users never got around to building pyramids.

Linguistic and social attitudes are packaged together. Such packaging has been the topic of many a Language Log posting on teenspeak and/or genderspeak, as in this recent posting of mine.

Dismissive whatever is a case in point. There’s Geoff Pullum’s scathing criticism of Naomi Baron on the presumed baleful effects of electronic communications on young people, in “Whateverist nomads thinking in snippets” (the term whateverism seems to be due to Baron), and later a brief summary of mine, here, where I observe that

whatever has come to be seen as a mark of disaffected young people all over the U.S. [indeed all over the Anglophone world], conveying apathy, dismissiveness, and a variety of related attitudes (lack of commitment, refusal to make discriminations, and so on) that draw scorn from all sorts of sources.

So disaffected that you can’t be bothered to pay attention to the space dudes even when they offer you some awesome ideas.

Words for ‘chew toy’

April 28, 2010

Rhymes With Orange takes on “words for X”:

The full trope comes in two parts:

(A) Language L has many words (where “word” is to be understood as ‘OLFESC‘) for X (where “for X” is to be understood as ‘for types of X’, that is, ‘in conceptual domain X’).

(B) L has no OLFESC that covers the entire conceptual domain X.

The cartoon dog explicitly notes (A) for the concept CHEW TOY, though what the dog provides is examples of chew toys, which is maybe not what you’d think of as “words for ‘chew toy’” (though the point is subtle). As for (B), the question is whether chew toy is a fixed expression of English: it’s certainly an ordinary-language expression, and is of some currency, so it straightforwardly satisfies two out of the three OLFESC conditions; the question is whether it’s also a fixed expression, rather than just a compound understood compositionally. Again, a subtle point.

The larger points are that neither (A) for (B) is at all unusual. (A) is, in fact, so commonplace as to be not worth remarking on; lexical richness is all over the place in many conceptual domains. And (B) — “lexical gaps”, as the missing general OLFESCs are often known — is not uncommon either; most of the  time, lexical gaps can be easily filled by compositional expressions.

What makes (A)+(B) so fascinating to many people is then a question of some interest on its own, and there’s quite a literature now on (A) and (B) and (A)+(B) and on what people make of these states of affairs (what do they mean?).

Up from speechlessness

April 27, 2010

Installment #4 in the Zippy “Speechless” series (#3 is here):

We’ve moved from (at least partially) expressive and sound-symbolic utterances to “nonsense” formulas (and picked up a Stooge along the way): material that is pronounced like ordinary English but isn’t in itself meaningful — though it does have a function in a cultural routine (in this case, as part of a counting-out rhyme).

German physicist Eugene Wigner?

April 26, 2010

I was startled to read, in Mark Buchanan’s cover article on random matrices (which have been used to explain all sorts of things) in the April 10 New Scientist, a description of  the originator of the idea (in 1956), Eugene Wigner, as a “German physicist” (p. 29). Wigner was born and raised in Hungary, did university studies and then research in Germany during the ’20s, moved to Princeton in 1930 (before things got really ugly), and lived in the U.S. for the rest of his life. The Wikipedia entry refers to Wigner, accurately to my mind, as a “Hungarian American physicist and mathematician”. I’d imagine that he would have bridled at the label “German”.

[I can attest to his audible Hungarian accent in English. Early on in my undergraduate years at Princeton I had dinner, with a few others, at Wigner's house there (my girlfriend at the time was taking a course at Douglass College, in New Brunswick, from Wigner's wife). (That was just a few years before he won the Nobel Prize in Physics, in 1963; I was an undergraduate at Princeton from 1958 through 1962.)

Wigner was charming and expansive, and gave us an informal presentation on one of his lifelong interests, symmetry.]

Then there’s the case of Fritz Zwicky, described in his Wikipedia entry as a “Swiss astronomer”, though “Swiss American astrophysicist” would be more accurate. Occasionally you can find a reference to him as Bulgarian, or in a magazine article quoted by the questia site, as a “prickly Bulgarian-Swiss-American”. All this because Zwicky was born, in 1898, in Varna, Bulgaria, where his father was engaged in business for some years. But at the age of six, he was sent to live with his grandparents in Glarus, Switzerland (Canton Glarus was then and still is a veritable nest of Zwickys; the canton has supplied Zwickys to the Swiss diaspora around the world, many of them originally from the town of Mollis, where the Zwicky-Haus is located and where my Zwicky grandfather was born). Zwicky was educated in Switzerland and then moved to Cal Tech in 1925 to work with Robert Millikan. He was associated with Cal Tech for the rest of his life.

[Zwicky didn't win a Nobel, and became bitter about that, since he took an extremely dim view (which he was pungently outspoken about) of almost all his astrophysicist, astronomer, and physicist colleagues. His achievements are many, though these days he's mostly known for his proposal of "dark matter" -- an idea that was singularly unappreciated during his lifetime but is now very hot stuff.]

That brings me around to Geoff Pullum, whose own Wikipedia entry pretty much nails things with the description “British-American linguist”. Born in Scotland, he moved with his family at a very young age to England, where he was educated, all the way through the Ph.D. Then he moved to California, eventually teaching many years at UC Santa Cruz, before taking up a chair at Edinburgh (back to Scotland!) a couple of years ago. In consequence of these moves, you can find him described, one place or another, as an English, American, or Scottish linguist.

Note that “Hungarian American” (Wigner), “Swiss American” (Zwicky), and “British-American” (Pullum) all treat as head element the item referring to the national identity relevant to the major part of someone’s professional life.

In other circumstances, people can legitimately feel unsure as to whether the labels should focus on origins, current status, or preponderance in professional life, and there’s no simple solution for all purposes.

Warning signs

April 26, 2010

From the “Metropolitan Diary” feature of 26 April in the New York Times (it’s a regular Monday thing): “Signs of the Times”, a wry poem by Mel Glenn about the following warning posted on the Q train:

Assaulting M.T.A. personnel
is a felony punishable by
up to 7 years in prison.

Why would the MTA [here I do not follow the NYT's fanatic attachment to periods in initialisms, though I do wonder what was on the actual sign] caution people against assaulting its personnel? Would potential assaulters be deterred by the warning? Would they not already understand that assault is a serious matter?

Glenn’s poem went on to suggest:

Maybe other signs should be
displayed as well:

Do not trip strangers on the

Avoid attacking people who sell

Refrain from accosting
reference librarians.

[I would add: And do not deface subway signs.]


April 26, 2010

The Zippy strip has advanced to #3 in the “Speechless” series (first two installments — or instalments, if you will — here and here), and moved from silence to vocalizations that are and are not “speech”:

There’s an overwhelmingly large literature on various kinds of symbolism and conventionalization in utterances. Ah-ooga, used to represent the sound of an automobile horn, most notably a Ford “Model A” horn (there’s even an ahooga website, for owners and restorers of Model A’s), falls in with a big class of cases, of several types — ouch and ah-choo and cock-a-doodle-doo and whoosh among them — that are expressive or sound-symbolic but also conventionalized to the point where they can be pronounced like ordinary words (rather than sound effects), though they can also be set off to some extent from the material surrounding them by various levels of “performance”, rather than mere utterance.

Now, you ask, the fish, what about the fish? How do we get from ah-ooga to landing a fish, or the reverse? Here I’m not up enough on Zippyconography, though the fish looks vaguely familiar. Maybe some kind reader can help.


April 23, 2010

A weekend cartoon, on pinhead speechlessless, part 2: “speaking” in punctuation marks:

We get to guess at what’s conveyed by each one.


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