Sunday, September 1, 2013

Review: Punctuation..?

I've posted a number of book reviews on this blog, but I think this one is the first I have concrete plans to use in the near future. I was asked to review "Punctuation..?", a short 35-page saddle-stapled book published by User design press. The main definitions for correct usage are taken from the Oxford English Mini Dictionary (can you imagine -- a usage book that actually cites its sources). The book briefly covers usage and suggestions for apostrophes, parentheses, colon and semicolons, dashes, slashes, and more. Each usage description is accompanied by an (often humorous) line drawing referring to or illustrating the usage. One thing I liked about this book is its mostly descriptive attitude. This isn't a prescriptive diatribe about how texting is ruining our punctuation use; it's a light-hearted and well-informed instruction manual for actual English. The errors it discusses are real errors that everyone, native speaker and learner alike, should avoid for the sake of clear writing, not elitist shibboleths for posh hipsters to complain about. Since this is a British publication, some of the terminology might be confusing for American audiences (though I would guess that most people are familiar with the main differences across the pond: period vs. full stop, single vs. double quotation marks). The only difference that would introduce a genuine error for American writers would be the claim that we should not use a period after abbreviations like Mrs., Mr., and Dr. (where in America we obligatorily do use a period in such cases). Other than this all the advice is applicable for American as well as British audiences, modulo terminological differences. As an erstwhile teacher of English as a Second Language, I definitely plan to use ideas and usage suggestions from this text in the classroom. Not only is the advice clearly presented and playfully executed, but also great attention is paid to proper typesetting. I would guess that most anyone who has occasion to write/type in English would fine use for the section delineating the typographical and usage differences between the hyphen, en dash, and em dash. The comma usage section, also, should prove useful to anyone teaching writing. While some of the advice is too simplistic (we use commas to join any two independent clauses separated by a coordinating conjunction, not just ones with a change in subject), there's a lot of information packed into this very short and eminently readable book.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

new Collins dictionary site

I had my attention directed to the new Collins dictionary site this week. For the most part it's your standard dictionary site -- definitions, usage examples, etc. The IPA transcriptions are solid, though don't include syllable boundaries, and I have yet to find a word improperly transcribed. The search function is predictably fine, though doesn't have autosuggestions. What got me excited, though, was the information about the relative frequency of the word in each entry. In the top right of each entry is a "commonness" bar, which indicates how common a word is by shading between 1 and 5 circles. Additional mouseover text mentions the size of that category, e.g., "X is one of the 30,000 most commonly used words". Though there are obviously questions about what corpus is being used for these calculations, it's still a neat feature. Another cool graphic is featured in the bottom right of each entry, which features an adjustable chart showing how common the word has been for a specified time period (from the last 500 years to the last 10 years). Perhaps not as detailed as COCA's interface, but still a great addition to a dictionary web site. And let's not forget the "translations" section, which gives translations of the word into other languages. Okay, Blackfoot isn't included, but you can instantly see translations from all the most spoken languages. Overall, it's pretty cool; I'll probably be using it as my go-to dictionary site from now on, mostly because of the frequency statistics.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

another crash blossom

As those who are regular Language Log readers know, a crash blossom is a news headline that leads us to an incorrect parsing of its meaning. In many ways crash blossoms are similar to garden path sentences, the classic one being "The horse raced past the barn fell", which lead us down a metaphorical garden path by presenting information that can be parsed easily into a certain structure, only to ruin our structural hypothesis later on. In the case of "The horse raced past the barn fell", our hypothesis is that "raced" is the main verb of the sentence, rather than part of a relative clause describing the horse. Thus we parse "The horse raced past the barn", and then have to completely redo our structure when we get to "fell".

The crash blossom that caught my eye the other day is similar: "Stepmom charged with murder has baby". The main headline on the full story is no better: "Alabama stepmom charged with girl's murder gives birth". Again we have a relative clause with the relative pronoun omitted, leading us to think that what is in fact part of a relative clause is the main verb of the sentence. So in the full headline, we think the story is about a stepmother in Alabama being charged with murder, when in fact the story is about the woman in question giving birth.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

language as technology

My friend and erstwhile colleague Josh Birchall posted a link on Facebook to an interesting TED talk by Mark Pagel entitled How Language Transformed Humanity, on the development of language as a communicative tool and how it presented a huge evolutionary advantage over non-linguistic species. It isn't difficult to see how language, an infinitely productive system capable of expressing ideas that are not tied to a specific time and location, confers a greater benefit than other forms of communication. Language can be used to transfer abstract ideas and share a much wider range of information and technology compared to, say, the system of pheromones that ants use to communicate. It is for that reason that many archaeologists typically assume that the rise of abstract expression (viz., art) and the exponential proliferation of tool development coincides with the rise of language.

At any rate, it's an interesting talk, even if it's not perfect, and I think well worth watching.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

allophones and marginal phonemes

One of the most basic concerns of phonology is determining what phonemes constitute the phonological inventory of a given language, i.e., which sounds are used contrastively. Sounds are used contrastively if switching one pronunciation for another could result in a change in meaning (it may not be the case that a new word thus formed actually exists, but I think the point still holds for pairs like brick~blick). I can pronounce the word "atom" with an alveolar flap or with an alveolar stop, but the choice does not produce a difference in meaning. At worst I sound British if I use an alveolar stop rather than a flap. One of the ways phonologists look at contrastive versus non-contrastive sounds is the distribution of sounds. Contrastive sounds will typically have the same distribution. In English, for instance, /t/ and /d/ are contrastive, and we can find them in the same environments. Each one can occur in the onset or coda of a syllable, including before sonorants in a complex onset or after sonorants in a complex coda. As mentioned before, alveolar flaps and stops are non-contrastive in English, and are viewed as variant pronunciations. Another example is aspirated and unaspirated voiceless stops -- we perceive the /p/ in "pit" and "spit" to be somehow the same, even though one is aspirated and one is not.

Problems arise when phonemes are in complementary distribution but don't in any real sense seem to be allophones. An example from English is the case of /h/ and /ŋ/. /h/ occurs only in onset position, and /ŋ/ only in coda position. We might have to do a little bit of hand-waving, but as long as we don't insist on following our rubrics with machine-like strictness, we can say something about the fact that we don't have any external evidence that these two sounds come from the same phoneme, e.g., alternations that we do find in "atom" (with a flap) versus "atomic" (with a stop). We also have evidence from historical English sources (including modern orthography) that explains why /ŋ/ only shows up in coda position -- it arose from place assimilation when /n/ appeared before /g/, which is why we spell /ŋ/ as ng, as in "sing". Another difficulty appears when sounds only contrast in some environments. This is called neutralization. For instance, in Blackfoot, /t/ and /ts/ contrast in most environments. Both can appear in onsets and codas. However, only /ts/ appears before /i/. Thus we can't simply say that /t/ and /ts/ are or aren't contrastive; we have to specify the specific environments in which they are contrastive.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

thinking scientifically about language

I just submitted my grades for my fall LING 101 course, and I'm busy preparing for my spring LING 101 course, so the question of how to get people to think scientifically about language has been much on my mind recently. I've found that one of the most useful entry-level questions is "How is human language difference from other forms of animal communication?" The media loves animal language stories, and so the uniqueness and complexity of human language is one of the first things I cover. One of the most important things about discussing such topics is not "Is human language unique?", but "What concrete properties of human language distinguish it from animal communication?" We're doing science, and so we want to point to specific criteria to distinguish the two; we want a theory of human language that predicts specific empirical facts. This is not how the general public usually thinks about language (or about anything; critical thinking is far removed from the natural pattern of human cognition).

Another topic I've always wanted to cover in more detail is speech perception. Often when I tell non-linguists that I work on how we perceive speech sounds and assign them to various categories, I get blank stares. Certainly before I was in linguistics I gave no thought to speech perception. When I lived in Italy in elementary school it was inconceivable to me that Italian speakers couldn't understand English; my first hypothesis (admittedly quickly discarded) was that when someone spoke English they simply heard nothing. We think of language as magic: direct communication from one mind to another. It takes a bit of work to transition into the type of thinking that evaluates the creation of sound by the human vocal tract and analyses how these sounds are transmitted as vibrations through the air, and then perceived by the human auditory and perceptual apparati (yes, I know that's not the proper Latinate plural). The question of how we distinguish a bilabial nasal from an alveolar nasal is not a natural one to ask, but it's an important question for linguists.

These are some of the basic concepts I'm planning to use in my 101 class next semester. If anyone has suggestions for other concepts useful for introducing people to the scientific study of language, I'd be glad to hear about them in the comments.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

nominal tense

I read a headline the other day that gave me pause: "Cleveland to demolish serial killer's home". The reading I got initially was that someone charged with murder was living in a house, and the city of Cleveland was getting ready to tear it down, perhaps as additional punishment for the man's heinous crime. Of course, in reality the article was about the demolition of the house where the serial killer had lived and disposed of the bodies of his victims. It would be rather strange to demolish a home just because a criminal had formerly occupied it, but it makes perfect sense to demolish a home that had been used as a crime scene and tomb. I think it was "home" that threw me off -- this calls to mind homey connotations for me, rather that simply referring to an inhabited structure.

Another source of ambiguity is that English has no nominal tense. (There are numerous theoretical reasons to distinguish nominal "tense" from relative-to-utterance-time markers on verbs, but I'll stick with the term here since it's descriptively useful, especially in languages that use the same affixes on nouns and verbs.) In English, when I say "my house", it could mean a number of different things depending on context. I could say "I like my house", meaning the one I currently occupy, or I could say "My house was small", discussing the one I grew up in. To overtly signify that the house in question either no longer exists or is no longer attached to me, I could use "former". Some languages (such as Wakashan languages), on the other hand, have tense affixes that attach to nouns as well as verbs. The most natural translation in English is usually something like "my former house", with the ambiguity between whether the house is former because it no longer exists or still exists but is no longer in my possession. If we all spoke Nitinaht, maybe the headline would have been less ambiguous. Or maybe not.