Archive for February, 2009


February 28, 2009

An exchange, a few days ago, between Elizabeth Daingerfield Zwicky and her daughter Opal (who will be 5 on Wednesday), as reported on the On the Other Hand blog:

Complaining about my desire to pick up the Lego: “You are a FEEN. An evil FEEN, I tell you! Wickedness!” “A fiend, you mean?” “Not a feed, a feen! An evil nasty horrible thing.”

Clearly, Opal was aiming at (her version of) the word fiend, except that for her, the final [nd] cluster has been simplified. When her mother produced her own version of the word, with a [d], Opal took the [d] to be the salient phonological feature of the coda and disregarded the nasality (which might have been realized in her mother’s speech merely as nasalization of the vowel) — so she perceived her mother’s production as an instance of the word feed.

It’s easy to disregard vowel nasalization as a cue for a nasal stop in lexical representation, especially when many speakers have spontaneous nasalization of vowels. Listeners learn to disregard spontaneous nasalization and so sometimes fail to detect a lexical nasal; HADLE is a surprisingly frequent misspelling of HANDLE, as on this website devoted to handle bags (or “hadle bags”, as the webpage has it).

The humanities has

February 26, 2009

In a darkish piece on Wednesday on the role of the humanities in higher education these days — enrollments declining from 1966 through 1996, institutions cutting back on courses and faculty recently — the NYT (p. C7) quoted Derek Bok, “a former president of Harvard and the author of several books on higher education”:

The humanities has a lot to contribute to the preparation of students for their vocational lives.

I’ve bold-faced the notable point, the humanities (formally marked as a plural) with singular verb agreement (has).

The world of plural marking is full of surprises: zero-marked plurals (“The two croissant were delicious”), s-marked plurals whose referents are (arguably) singular (“The eaves are full of pine needles”), s-marked forms that can serve as singulars (We are at a crossroads”), and more. Bok’s example — if it is quoted correctly, which I don’t concede — is an instance of the crossroads sort; the United States (now treated as singular) is a notable example of this sort, and there are others.

I don’t want to come down too hard on Derek Bok, since the NYT might well have misquoted him, or flubbed in editing, but this does look like another case of a formally plural expression moving to being treated as a singular in grammar.

Over the top?

February 26, 2009

Figurative language is a tricky thing. It can be tremendously evocative, or it can call attention to itself too insistently. Some critics have seen the late John Updike’s writing as sometimes coming perilously close to the line; usually the images seem fresh and insightful, other times they arrest the progress of your reading, like precious jewels embedded in the text.

Other writers — Alice Munro, for example  — rarely strike people this way, even though what they write has plenty of figurative language in it.

And then there are cases where I’m just not sure.


A spritual accessory

February 26, 2009

What I noticed first about the language in this television ad for the Prayer Cross (from Montebello Collections) — viewable here — was the reference to the cross as a “spiritual accessory”. Then I noticed a modifier in the ad:

When held up to the light, the entire Lord’s Prayer becomes instantly and almost miraculously visible.

That is, when the cross is held up to the light, the entire Lord’s Prayer etc. etc. The cross is mentioned in the previous context, of course, and it’s obviously topical in the context. So though the subjectless predicative adjunct would be labeled a “dangling modifier” by many people (because it doesn’t pick up the referent for the missing subject in the default way, from the subject of the main clause), it’s likely to escape most people’s notice (as it did mine for some time), because it’s so easily interpretable.

Group therapy talk

February 25, 2009

My friend Max Vasilatos was recently asked (for complex reasons that aren’t relevant here) to supply, to a mutual friend, expressions that would be typical of group therapist talk in the United States. She — yes, Max is a woman — brought the topic up at a lunch last week with Ned Deily and me, and we started cataloguing jargony platitudes. A few are below:

Use your words.
We own our feelings here.
Remember, when you assume, you make an ass out of u and me.
We’re not here to take each other’s inventory.
Now we will do a trust exercise.
This is a safe space where you can say anything, anything at all.
There is no such thing as a stupid question.

(The last two of these are usually followed, in a matter of minutes, by a judgmental pronouncement from the therapist.)

The point is not to make an inventory of these, but to remark on something that transfixed us early on: reciting these expressions is like producing those evil bits of music that you can’t get out of your head: earworms. They’re catchphrase earworms. As Max said to her correspondent: “Now I’m going to be thinking of these all day, damn you, you evil person!”

More Zippy catchphrases

February 24, 2009

Zippy is perenially fascinated by catchphrases and their deployment. Here’s the latest take:

Convenience and courtesy

February 23, 2009

Gene Buckley writes to grouse about this message from the Linguistic Society of America:

XXX has applied for a 2009 LSA Institute Fellowship and has provided your name as a recommender.  For your convenience, we are only accepting applications online.

How is this limitation on the means of response for our convenience? I suppose that the person who wrote this felt that a straightforward “we are only accepting applications online” would have been too blunt, so that something needed to be added for the sake of politeness. There are several options — “we are able to accept only online applications”, for instance — but the writer fell back on a formula that is widely used to preface announcements that might be unwelcome to the recipient.

It’s first cousin to “courtesy call” used of telemarketers’ sales calls.


A little more on “Benjamin Britten”

February 21, 2009

My posting on Susan Sarandon’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Britten” didn’t say anything about the details of her error, which is of a very common type. Let me explain.



February 18, 2009

I ordered the Cajun Pasta, all shrimp (that is, with extra shrimp replacing the chicken and andouille sausage), and the server asked, “Are you a vegetarian, or do you just like shrimp?” As it happens, I just like shrimp. But I noticed the word vegetarian, used here to refer to someone who doesn’t eat red meat or poultry but does eat seafood — a usage that annoys strict vegetarians mightily.

What’s at issue here is superficially a matter of language, but at root has to do with categorization, in this case the categorization of foodstuffs. There’s a folk taxonomy here, in which the flesh of animals (in the broad sense of animal, as in “animal, vegetable, mineral”) is distinguished from food from plants, and within the FLESH category, the flesh of mammals (RED-MEAT) and birds (POULTRY), taken together (as MEAT), is distinguished from sea creatures used as food (SEAFOOD), and within the SEAFOOD category, there’s a division into FISH and SHELLFISH.

This is a folk taxonomy, not a scientific one, and like folk taxonomies in general it’s imperfect. The labels I’ve given, in all-caps, are just (suggestive but ad hoc) names for the categories, not expressions used by English speakers to refer to these categories. (Taxa in folk taxonomies don’t necessarily have ordinary-language names.)

The question is then how ordinary speakers of English talk about these matters.


The Curious Case of B. B.

February 18, 2009

On Alex Ross‘s blog, a posting entitled “That I would pay to see”:

I watched the Golden Globe Awards last month, but I somehow failed to register that when Susan Sarandon was announcing the Best Actor winner she stated that Brad Pitt was nominated for his performance in The Curious Case of Benjamin Britten.

Photo: Pitt as Britten, with Tom Cruise as Peter Pears.

(Hat tip to Ned Deily.)