Archive for the ‘Language in the media’ Category

Who is Alice? What is she?

February 21, 2016

From yesterday’s NYT, a long obit by William Grimes, with two different heads

(on-line) Harper Lee, Author of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ Dies at 89

(in print) Nelle Harper-Lee, 1926-2016: ‘Mockingbird’ Author, Elusive Voice of the Small-Town South

In the print edition, the story begins on p. 1, continues on p. 14, and continues further on p. 15. Lee’s sister Alice is mentioned in passing on p. 14 (details below), and then 20 sizable paragraphs later, on p. 15, we get:

[Ex] She lived with Alice, who practiced law in her 90s and died in 2014 at 103.

And of course I totally failed to recognize who Alice was — to me she was a new character who just dropped out of the sky — so I had to track back through the story to find her introduction. The practice of newspaper journalism that caused my problem could be called No Recharacterization: people in a story are named and characterized at first appearance, but thereafter are referred to only by a short-form name (Prefix + LN, LN alone, or in certain cases FN alone), with no re-description or re-introduction. As I wrote in an earlier posting on journalistic conventions, this practice

diverges from the usual practices of story-telling (also adopted by many writers of non-fiction), where people are re-introduced into the discourse if they have dropped from topicality.

The addition of the two words her sister to [Ex] would have averted the problem, but (as I noted in the earlier posting, many newspaper people regard No Recharacterization

as absolutely [inviolable]: it’s what newspaper writing requires.

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The New Yorker food issue

November 2, 2015

The November 2nd issue of the New Yorker is the food issue; there are three pieces in it I’d especially like to recommend: Calvin Trillin on pork barbecue in North Carolina, Dana Goodyear on making seaweed palatable, and Nicola Twilley on how the packaging of food can affect (our perceptions of) its flavor. The first has special meaning for me, since it features my friend John Shelton Reed, and this is the second time Trillin has devoted a New Yorker food piece to covering  a friend of mine (the earlier occasion was a 1983 piece on the great linguist Jim McCawley on cooking and eating in Chinese).

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Words of One Syllable Dept.

October 22, 2015

For some time now, the New York Times has been reporting, in almost daily stories, on the Canadian elections, culminating in Liberal Justin Trudeau succeeding Conservative Stephen Harper as Prime Minister. Some of these stories, by Ian Austen, refer to an episode in Trudeau’s past that some have interpreted as showing that Trudeau was not mature enough to serve as his nation’s political leader. A version from yesterday, in Austen’s “Justin Trudeau, Son of a Canadian Leader, Follows His Own Path to Power”, about Trudeau’s history:

Mr. Trudeau showed a penchant for unscripted remarks that could be refreshing or embarrassing. When Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced that Canadian fighter jets would join the American-led campaign against the Islamic State militant group, Mr. Trudeau responded with a vulgar metaphor that many called juvenile.

Now, I’ve been following Canadian politics (at some distance, the way I follow American politics; it’s often a crazy, dirty business), and I recall Trudeau strongly opposing Harper’s fighter-jet proposal, but I don’t recall any “vulgar metaphor” or any outcry about one, and I can’t find any evidence of it on the net. Of course, the proudly fastidious Times wouldn’t actually cite offensive language, but Austen doesn’t even cite or link to any story in which the episode was reported in the clear, with context. So there’s no way for me to judge whether Trudeau “broke the unwritten law” (cue the Piranha Brothers) and merited opprobrium. Words of one syllable.

[Added a bit later: Ben Zimmer has now tracked down the actual quote, which is much less exciting than Austen made it out to be. More below to fold.]

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More on sounding gay

July 10, 2015

Back on June 11th, I posted about the documentary “Do I Sound Gay?”, as I was about to be interviewed by a journalist about it. I had a number of critical things to say about parts of the film, though I didn’t post them here. Now NPR’s Terry Gross has interviewed two of the principals in it, the filmmaker David Thorpe and a speech pathologist, Susan Sankin, with whom Thorpe worked in an attempt to sound “less gay”.

Enraged by this interview, Sameer ud Dowla Khan (a phonetician at Reed College) wrote an open letter to Gross, which Mark Liberman has now posted on Language Log (with a link to Fresh Air and one to a transcript of the interview). Khan has many of the same criticisms of the interview that I had of the trailer for the film (I haven’t been able to view the whole film), both of which exhibit deep ignorance about simple (and well-known) facts about language in social life. Some excerpts from Khan’s letter follow.

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Briefly: Reporting enormity

June 20, 2015

From an op-ed piece in the NYT yesterday, “No Sanctuary in the Holy City” by Patricia Williams Lessane, about the church massacre in Charleston SC (the “Holy City” of the headline) on Wednesday:

I can’t help but think of this senseless act of terror, the largest mass shooting in the country since 2013, within the historical context of the Birmingham bombing [of 1963], but also within the very current context of the increasing terror we African-Americans face on a daily basis.

The boldfaced parenthetical is intended to convey the enormity of the event, using a standard journalistic device for this purpose, citing the years since the last grievous event of its type (natural disaster, extreme weather, mass murder, whatever). But it’s not at all effective here: 2013 was only two years ago, so the Charleston massacre ends up being treated as everyday, even trivial.

The journalistic device gets its effectiveness from the assumption that events of great enormity are rare, but that assumption doesn’t always hold: random events sometimes cluster (necessarily); one event can sometimes help to trigger similar events; and some types of events can be increasing in frequency over time. In any case, monstrous events are monstrous, period, no matter how long it’s been since the last monstrous event of its type. Lessane was right to cry out against “this senseless act of terror”, but that despairing cry is undercut by an implicit reference to the fact that more than nine people (the number murdered in Charleston) were killed in an American mass shooting as recently as 2013.

(It’s possible that Lessane didn’t write that parenthetical herself. It might have been inserted by an editor who reflexively and thoughtlessly employed the journalistic device: that’s just the way these things are reported.)

The distraction of ambiguity

May 6, 2015

Today’s Scenes From a Multiverse:

The ambiguity in selling … drugs for … prostitutes  (which turns on the function of the PP for … prostitutes in the larger structure) briefly distracts the characters from the image-mong(er)ing that is their pressing concern, when it really isn’t important which of the readings is the correct one; either way, they’ve got a huge scandal that’s going to take a lot of media management. (more…)

Knob in a red top

March 18, 2015

On Facebook yesterday, Chris Waigl posted the beginning of this story from the (UK) Independent, dated today:

James May calls Jeremy Clarkson a ‘k**b’ after Top Gear star suspended by BBC

Top Gear presenter James May has defended his co-presenter Jeremy Clarkson following his suspension, by calling his colleague “a k**b” but saying he “quite likes him.”

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On the PIE watch: in the New York Times

March 17, 2015

Just now, a posting here on recent research about Proto-Indo-European and its homeland. Also in the media, back on February 24th, the Science Times piece “The Tangled Roots of English” by Nicholas Wade. Which begins:

The peoples of India, Iran and Europe speak a Babel of tongues, but most — English included — are descended from an ancient language known as proto-Indo-European. Scholars have argued for two centuries about the identity and homeland of those who spoke this parent language, but a surprisingly sudden resolution of this longstanding issue may be at hand.

Many origins have been proposed for the birthplace of the Indo-European languages, but only two serious candidates are now under discussion, one of which assumes they were spread by the sword [from the Russian steppes], the other by the plow [from Anatolia].

The recent research supports the Steppe proposal (which is generally favored by historical linguistics, but Wade spends a lot of the article on the Anatolia proposal (which he is on record as favoring). In any case, it’s hard to make sense of Wade’s exposition, which unloads a lot of technical detail in a way that even I found hard to follow.

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On the PIE watch: headline news

March 17, 2015

Headline for an NPR story by Laura Santhanam on February 25th:

Linguists link English, Hindi to single ancestor language spoken 6,500 years ago

And the beginning of the story:

Linguists have traced the roots of English, Hindi, Greek and all Indo-European languages to a common ancestor tongue first spoken on the Russian steppes as much as 6,500 years ago

The headline seems to be claiming that the newsworthy event is the discovery of a single ancestor language for English and Hindi and adds the information that this language was spoken 6,500 years ago. But the reconstruction of this ancestor language, Proto-Indo-European (PIE), is news from roughly 200 years ago. What’s current news is the claim that we now have solid evidence about where and when PIE was spoken; the first sentence of the story begins to re-frame the story, by treating the concept of the Indo-European languages as a given and highlighting the where and when.

The problem for the journalists here is that readers cannot be expected to be familiar with the concepts of the IE languages and of PIE (in the way that readers can be expected to be familiar with, say, the concept of DNA). One of the great intellectual achievements of linguistics has not made it far into public consciousness.

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Calvin’s genre competence

January 23, 2015

A while back, we witnessed Calvin’s competence in writing tabloid headlines. Yesterday he took on talk radio:

“Imagine getting paid to act like a six-year-old!”


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