linguistics

Merry Christmas!

When you’re learning a new language, it’s always fun to learn how to say something along the lines of ‘Merry Christmas’ - you may be very new to the language, or you might have been learning for years and just never around people at the right time of year to learn, or you might even be somewhere that doesn’t celebrate Christmas and have to come up with your own phrase.

This website lists translations of the phrase in ‘all languages’ - at 122 they’re still quite a few thousand languages short of ‘all’, but it is a delightful list.

Some, like English, might use slightly obscure words - it’s only really at Christmas we are likely to use the word ‘merry’ so much.

It’s also fun to see which langauges use words based on Christmas. I partiularly like Maori (meri Kirihimete) and Mizo (Krismas chibai) where the modification of Christmas (we assume with something like ‘merry’ or ‘wishes’) is in different orders.

Many European languages have words for Christmas like Italian Natale, Spanish Navidad and Polish Narodzenia, which are all cognate with English natal or birth (i.e. post-natal) - birth coming from Proto-Germanic, and natal being a more recent French borrowing. 

Final Christmas greetings in Auslan - the word for Christmas is the same as beard, in reference to the bearded Santa Claus.

“I am a morphologist,” Siddiqi told me in an email. “What that means in the realm of linguistics is that I study word-formation or how our brains (or cognition or minds or what-have-you) goes about building words. I have a secondary focus on non-standard English phenomena (non-standard in this case would be things that many people would consider “improper”). The affix -ass is an interface of those two pursuits.”

I have no idea when it became part of my vocabulary, but phrases like “taking your sweet-ass time” became such a fixture that I can still picture my old roommate Mark telling me to hurry up in front of his boss’s children, saying “quit taking your sweet”—conspicuous, single-syllable pause—“time.” Real role model, that guy.

Linguistics in Cabin Pressure's Xinzhou episode: Reduplication, truth conditions, and accidental doge speak

In Timbuktu, we saw contrastive focus reduplication, which involves doubling to indicate a more prototypical example, but here we have triple reduplication to indicate emphasis: 

CAROLYN: Right, Martin: do the walk-around.
MARTIN: I was about to do the walk-around and you said, “In-in-in.”
CAROLYN: And now I’m saying, “Out-out-out.” Go!

Note that it’s just totally odd for Caroline to say “in-in” or “out-out” if she’s chivvying Martin in or out, although she could do it to distinguish between being in and in-in (properly in), etc. Similarly, you can say to someone “all you ever do is whine, whine, whine” but it’s stranger to say:

*All you ever do is whine, whine.
?All you ever do is whine, whine, whine, whine. 

Three or four reduplicants has a decidedly different effect from just two. 

Secondly, an example of a sentence that is totally grammatical but nearly impossible to utter truthfully: 

DOUGLAS: Ah, hallo. I thought you were asleep.
CAROLYN: I am asleep.

Since one generally isn’t aware of being asleep (and talking in one’s sleep isn’t under conscious control), you can’t say “I am asleep/I’m sleeping” to mean the same thing as “x is asleep/x is sleeping”. But since we all know this, we end up interpreting “I’m asleep” with some extra pragmatics to mean the speaker is very close to sleep, would be sleeping if not for your interruption, etc. 

But instead of sleeping, they’re playing a question-and-answer film title game: 

MARTIN: Okay, okay, okay, okay! How Green Was My Valley?
DOUGLAS: Yes?
MARTIN: Seven.
[Transcriber’s note: as in ‘Se7en’]

DOUGLAS: “Seven”?! Your valley was seven green?
MARTIN: Yes. Out of ten. I think the scale is implicit.

I’m pretty sure that “seven green” is fluent doge and not much else (our selectional restriction mismatch here is that “green” is an adjective while numbers modify nouns). 

Part of cabinpressureadvent. Previous linguistics in Cabin Pressure.

Airline vs Airdot in Abu DhabiStructural ambiguity and scalar implicature in BostonSuperlatives and “would do” in CremonaAt-issue-ness, passives, and metaphors in DouzWhy “Edinbra”, plural sports teams, and “posh Welsh” in EdinburghMore on Edinburgh/EdinbraWord games in Fitton.

Season 2: NATO alphabet and chiasmus in HelsinkiPolish names and sportscaster present in GdanskExpletive infixation, strong past, Gricean maxims, and quantifiers in IpswichFormal vocabulary, Spanish, and onomatopoeia in JohannesburgAmbiguous compounds in Kuala LumpurLimericks, perfect rhymes, and evil-sounding names in LimerickChristmas mondegreens in Molokai.

Season 3: Ellipsis ambiguity in NewcastleSnowclones, irregular plurals, and adjectives in Ottery St MaryDiagnostic questions and rhyming phrases in ParisUvular stops, Q, French adverbs in Qikiqtarjuaqdactyls and “DER der der” in RotterdamAt-issue content in St Petersburg.

Season 4: Contrastive focus reduplication in TimbuktuModality in UskertyThe NPI “give a hoot” in Vaduz, Gricean relevance in Wokingham

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Bee Dance Language - the linguistics behind animal communication

Bees dance to talk to their hive. How do they do it?

Come look at one of nature’s linguistic wonders: the bee waggle dance. This dance is so surprisingly communicative that it often gets called a language!

By: NativLang.

The erection of the new field of language and desire may be impressive to some observers, but we fear that – as happens all too often – it may have come a bit prematurely. We hope to have aroused readers’ interest in the study of the complete range of sexuality, with identity as one prominent component, as a far more satisfying alternative.
— 

Bucholtz, Mary, and Kira Hall (2004). Theorizing Identity in Language and Sexuality Research. Language in Society 33(4):501-547.

This is a fantastic (free to read!) article, and not just for that amazing concluding paragraph. You can find more of Kira Hall’s publications (a lot of which have to do with language, gender, sexuality, and/or identity) here for free!

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Merry Christmas, Tumblr!

Before anyone tells me otherwise, I’m pretty sure Frozen counts as a Christmas movie.
It’s got snowmen and a reindeer in it.

Also there’s that scene at the end where Santa tells them the true meaning of Christmas was inside them all along.

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And as a recovering grammar snob myself – please don’t start about how I opened this article with a dangling preposition; it’s still bothering me – I understand the knee-jerk reaction to improper usage and mechanics.

I’m an editor, for God’s sake; I eat, sleep, and breathe correct comma placement.

But there’s a difference between understanding standard grammar and demanding it, between believing there’s a time and a place for so-called “proper” English and ridiculing anyone who steps outside of what you deem “acceptable.”

There’s a difference between appreciating language and being a snob.

And the last place that we need grammar snobbery is in social justice movements.

And not just because getting hung up on the correct use of homonyms or subject-predicate agreement is distracting to the job at hand, but also because purporting one form of English as elite is inherently oppressive. …

As educated (and – okay – snarky) activists, we’re quick to respond to “According to the dictionary” arguments with “Who wrote the dictionary, though?”

We understand that a reference guide created by a white supremacist, heteropatriarchal system does nothing but uphold that status quo.

Similarly, we have to use that line of thinking when talking about the English language: Who created the rules? And who benefits from them?

As per usual, what this comes down to is an issue of privilege (of course!). In fact, grammar snobbery comes down to an intersection of multiple privileges.

Let me count the ways.

— 

Why Grammar Snobbery Has No Place in the Movement

The whole thing is very much worth the read, but here’s a list of the privileges from the article that intersect with ideas of “correct” grammar: 

1. Educational Privilege 
2. Class Privilege
3. Race Privilege
4. Native Language Privilege
5. Ability Privilege

Also relevant is the idea of literacy privilege

With over 40 percent of votes cast so far, the word “feminist” is leading Time’s fourth annual “word banishment poll,” in which columnist Katy Steinmetz asks readers to declare their intent to permanently strike a single word or phrase from the English language. Other notable candidates include “bae,” “om nom nom nom,” “turnt,” and “basic.” The only word truly deserving of banishment—“disrupt,” a widely hated Silicon Valley buzzword—is currently the least popular response.

With better curation, Time’s annual word-banishment polls could function as harmless communal exercises in which we collectively laugh at words or phrases that are past their prime.

But after four years of these polls, a worrying trend is starting to emerge, one that runs far deeper than this year’s misguided inclusion of the F-word: The polls inordinately target slang and vernacular used by people of color and young white women.

The first poll, for example, nominated “baby bump” and “sexting.” The second upped the ante, taking aim at “cray,” “jelly,” “literally,” “teehee,” and “totes.” The third continued in kind with “selfie,” “swagger,” and “twerk.” And this latest poll is almost entirely comprised of words that fall into those categories: “bae,” “yaaasssss,” “turnt,” “basic,” “literally,” “sorry not sorry,” “obvi,” “I can’t even,” and “said no one ever” all made the cut.

Only a third of the nominees on the list target groups outside of people of color and white women.

— 

Feminist, Bae, Turnt: Time’s ‘Worst Words’ List Is Sexist and Racist

While I’m not a fan of banning words in general, and I was hesitant to give Time the pageviews for this terrible list, since it looks like that ship has already sailed, how about we instead all go vote for “disrupt”, aka the least sexist/racist option