Archive for January, 2014

Word counts

January 25, 2014

Over on Language Log, Mark Liberman has repeatedly scathed writers who criticize public figures over their word use, especially 1st person singular pronouns, which they take to be a sign of self-involvement or grandiosity. Mark notes, again and again, that these writers never do actual counts, but instead report their impressions — but Mark does the stats, and again and again finds the impressions flat wrong. Now a report in which someone actually cites the counts.

Via Gregory Ward, this Salon piece of the 24th by Katie McDonough, “President Obama has used the word “gay” in official remarks 272 times since taking office: His predecessor George W. Bush said “gay” twice, once in a speech denouncing marriage equality”.


Cannibal rats

January 25, 2014

An enormously entertaining headline, from the Plymouth (England) Herald on January 23rd:

Ghost ship full of cannibal rats could be about to crash into Devon coast

(Plymouth is in Devon.)

The story sounds too delicious to be true, and apparently it’s not. Still, the image of a ghost ship full of cannibal rats is haunting.


More “How are you?”

January 25, 2014

Following up on my posting on “How are you?” (and the answer “(I’m) fine”): mail to the NYT. A response much like mine, but more detailed, from linguist Deborah Tannen, and another peeve about conventional idioms of social life. (more…)

Plant phallicity

January 25, 2014

Not about language.

The cover of the 10 January Science:


(The yellow medallion wasn’t on the physical cover, though it’s an entertaining addition.)



January 24, 2014

Karen Chung on Facebook points me to this PHD comic (of January 15th):

Oh my.

Friday cartoons

January 24, 2014

Two punning cartoons this morning: a Rhymes With Orange and a Mother Goose and Grimm:


Quid pro quo.


The Odd Couple.

63N Week 3

January 23, 2014

Elizabeth Traugott/Arnold Zwicky 

Linguistics 63N. Week 3. Varieties: Gender stereotypes. Jan 23rd.

Models: broad frames of reference used in various fields. In social sciences there were two main competing models in the 20thC, commonly referred to as “nurture vs. nature”:

a) “Nurture”, social construction: “[T]he process [of cultural transmission from generation to generation] is maintained through learning, a well-understood and unitary process, that acts to make the child like the adult of her culture”, which as a group process is “called ‘socialization’, imposed on the child by the group”, and “the individual is the…passive recipient…and product of her culture” (John Tooby and Leda Cosmides. 1992. The psychological foundations of culture. In Jerome H. Barkow, Leda Cosmides, and John Tooby, eds., The Adapted Mind, chapter 1, pp. 19-136. Oxford: Oxford University Press.) Therefore “the mind of the individual is almost entirely shaped by their culture and facts about a culture are not products of human nature”. (

b) “Nature”: involves at least some degree of universalism. Human nature determines culture to at least some degree.

Likewise in linguistics, there were two major competing models of the mind:

a) First half of 20thC: the mind as a blank slate shaped largely by input and culture (see e.g. Leonard Bloomfield, Language, 1933).

b) Second half of the 20thC: the mind as a highly structured language learning device shaped by an innate Universal Grammar (see e.g. Noam Chomsky, Syntactic Structures, 1957). The focus is on cognitive structures, the language capacity, and language as a unique property of the mind. Communication is considered to be secondary.

In both these linguistic models, the child is relatively passive, and interlocutors more or less mirror each other. Variation, especially social variation, is not a particularly important factor. Here is a famous sketch of communication by Ferdinand de Saussure. 1916. Course in General Linguistics. Trans. By Roy Harris, Open Court: La Salle, IL, USA, 1983.

A model of growing importance in the 21st century (but going back to the 1960’s) is interactional and social. It combines elements of nature and nurture. The child is thought of as actively interacting with caregivers and the environment, so environment and use influence mind and mind in turn influences environment. Whatever universal abilities there are, are considered to be minimal. Language is one of many cognitive abilities, and is not sharply distinct from communication (see e.g. Adele E. Goldberg. 2006. Constructions at Work: The Nature of Generalization in Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press). Emphasis is on practice (see Eckert, Penelope. Linguistic Variation and Social Practice. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000).

In this model, interlocutors may be very different. Factors such as differences in age, gender, etc., play a large role. Men have been shown by sociolinguistic work to promote local, often vernacular, varieties, whereas women promote supralocal, more standard varieties (see Labov, William.  1990. The intersection of sex and social class in the course of linguistic change. Language Variation and Change 2: 205-254).

All humans categorize. Depending on the model adopted, this may be because they learn the categories already established a) in their culture or b) in their cognitive system. Categorization is a major research issue in linguistics.

a) Are linguistic categories (e.g. animacy, obligation, motion) discrete with sharp boundaries?

b) Are categories prototypical, with marginal members and fuzzy boundaries?

Many comics comment on variation, and either further or laugh at social categories/stereotypes such as teen-talk and gender-talk.

What teen stereotypes have we encountered?

Gender stereotypes

Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman, Zits, (date? Appears to be 2005)

Cathy Guisewite, Cathy, 4/26/2005

Scott Adams, Dilbert, 9/21/2006

Mark Liberman says in the blog at this site that this comic strip reminds him of “Many women find biological comfort in one another’s company, and language is the glue that connects one female to another” (Louann Brizendine, The Female Brain, Morgan Road Books, 2006).

“I’m fine”

January 22, 2014

In the NYT on the 20th, a piece ,”The ‘How Are You?’ Culture Clash” by Aline Simone, on a difference between Russian and American conversational patterns, having to do with the question “How are you?” and the answers it gets.


London Underground

January 22, 2014

All over Facebook recently, this site, on “Fake Signs in London Underground”. Here are two of some linguistic interest — on visual communication in social space and on apologies:



Other signs have extra stations: Shepherd’s Pie, Stop Staring, The End, Nightmare on Elm St. And one station offers a submarine to Somalia.

On the dangler watch

January 22, 2014

A regular theme on this blog looks at “dangling modifiers” that on no reasonable grounds should some of them be treated as ungrammatical. Here are two cases, of different types.