Update on that F-K paper

Three months ago I posted about a paper in PLoS ONE called “Liberals lecture, conservatives communicate: Analyzing complexity and ideology in 381,609 political speeches”. I noted that there are serious problems with that study. For the tl;dr:

After I posted on here, I also commented on the article with my concerns. The PLoS ONE journal allows commenting on their articles, but I’ll admit that my first comment was neither appropriate nor helpful. It was more of a troll than anything. The editors removed my comment, and to their credit, they emailed me with an explanation why. They also told me what a comment should look like. So I posted a grown-up comment on the article. This started an exchange between me and the authors of the article. Here’s the skinny:

1. The authors confuse written language with spoken language
2. The study uses an ineffectual test for written language on spoken language
3. The paper does not take into account how transcriptions and punctuation affect the data
4. The authors cite almost no linguistic sources in a study about language
5. They use a test developed for English on other languages

The authors tried to respond to my points about why their methodology is wrong, but there are some things that they just couldn’t argue their way out of (such as points 1, 2, 3 and 5 above).

Behind the scenes, I was talking with the editors of the journal. They told me that they were taking my criticisms seriously and looking into the issue themselves. In my comments on the paper, I provided multiple sources to back up my claims. The authors did not do in their replies to me, but that’s because they can’t – there aren’t studies to back up their claims. However, my last email with the editors of the journal was over a month ago. I understand that these things can take time (and the editors told me this much) but a few of the criticisms that I raised are pretty cut and dry. The authors also stopped replying to my comments, the last one of which was posted on April 9, 2019 (can’t say I blame them though).

So I’m not very positive that anything is going to change. But I’ll let you know if it does.


Short interview with Dr. Samy Alim

In the Pittsburgh City Paper, there’s a short interview with Dr. Samy Alim. You should read it. It’s called “” and it’s all about language and discrimination. It’ll give you a taste of what kind of research Dr. Alim has done. If you like what you read, then go check out his book (with Geneva Smitherman, another great linguist) called Articulate while Black: Barack Obama, language, and race in the U.S., about how Obama’s masterful use of language is representative of the relationship between race, language and education in the US. That book is excellent.

I can’t pick a favorite quote from the City Paper interview. Just go check it out: https://www.pghcitypaper.com/pittsburgh/the-linguistic-dominance-of-white-western-english-and-how-to-recognize-and-disrupt-it/Content?oid=14230061

The American Spectator tries to write about language

But their logic gets in the way

So, apparently the American Spectator is a conservative news magazine. Their About page doesn’t load on Opera (probably IE only), so I’m going off what Wikipedia tells me. While researching the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis I came across a review in the American Spectator of John McWhorter’s The Language Hoax. Somehow the reviewer, John Derbyshire, claims that McWhorter is too progressive. I mean, I guess everyone is progressive compared to the American right…

But that’s not what I came to tell you about. I came to talk about how to spot a bad article on language and/or linguistics. Here is the first paragraph of the Spectator’s review:

Chinese has an extraordinary number of verbs meaning “carry.” If I carry something on a hanging arm, like a briefcase, the verb is ti; on an outstretched palm, tuo; using both palms, peng; gripped between upper arm and body, xie; in my hand, like a stick, wo; embraced, like a baby, bao; on my back, bei; on my head, ding; on my shoulder, kang; on a pole over my shoulder, tiao; slung on a shoulder pole between two guys, tai….

Whoa! That’s a lotta verbs! I counted 11 and the reviewer wasn’t even done listing them. But hold on a second. How many verbs for carry does English have? According to Thesaurus.com, at least 39.

carry - thesaurus

What gives? Well, this is a bad way to start out an article on language. It’s called the “X words for snow” meme or cliché (aka a snowclone), after the claim that Eskimos have some large number of words for snow, which is supposed to mean that they have some better (or at least different) conception of snow than English speakers.

If you think about it for a second though, you can see why this idea is nonsense. First, languages divide and combine words differently. So whereas English doesn’t have a single word for ice hockey, Finnish does (it’s jääkiekko, literally a compound noun of jää “ice” and kiekko “puck/hockey”). But English speakers in Canada seem to have as firm a grasp on what ice hockey is all about as Finnish speakers in Finland. The inverse of the trope above is called the “No words for X” meme.

Second, what really counts as a word meaning “carry”? I could skate the puck into the zone in hockey or run the ball into the end zone in American football. In both cases I would be “carrying” the puck or the ball, but would you consider “carry” as part of the meaning of skate or run? I doubt it. Context can fill in a lot in language. And some languages might have a grammatical marker that means “carry” – so not a word word, like the word “word,” but a morpheme that you can attach to other words, as English does with –ed to indicate the past tense. Or think about how French forms a negative using the “word” pas, which comes from the word meaning step, but is now required to grammatically form the negative (so much so that you can leave off the negative particle ne in French, but not the pas).

Third, if it’s true that speakers of a language have some better conception of something because their language has a bunch of words for it, then surely that only works for the speakers who know those words. It doesn’t matter how many words Chinese has for “carry” – if a Chinese speaker doesn’t know those words, then they are useless. You can can sometimes fill in the blanks based on context, but this idea places too much importance on the words of a language and removes other factors relevant to language, such as speakers’ pragmatic and semantic knowledge or skills. (I have to also say that it’s interesting that the reviewer in the Spectator doesn’t say which dialect of Chinese he’s talking about. I know from reading about Chinese that there isn’t really one Chinese language and that some of the dialects are farther apart than Danish, Swedish and Norwegian. I guess he’s talking about Standard Mandarin Chinese? If you know more, leave a comment.)

There are other reasons that the Spectator’s opening paragraph is nonsense, but that should get you started. If you want to know more, McWhorter’s book delves into this topic, as well as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. The reviewer in the Spectator tries to engage with McWhorter’s claims, but falls flat by saying things like the differences in language are “biological in origin,” that the differences in the ways language marks things cannot be chance, and that McWhorter is a “fanatically extreme egalitarian protesting too much,” something I don’t think anyone except the American right would or could accuse him of.

Prof. Terttu Nevalainen’s farewell lecture

Prof. Terttu Nevalainen held her farewell lecture at the University of Helsinki on April 5. The place was packed and I want to share some observations from the day.

Terttu was introduced with the words “You can’t work in language variation and change without being familiar with Terttu’s research.” That isn’t hyperbole, it’s an understatement. Continue reading “Prof. Terttu Nevalainen’s farewell lecture”

A Language Map of the United States

There a new and interactive map of the languages spoken in the United States. It’s at http://languagemap.us/ and it’s pretty fun to play with. The data comes from the US Census Bureau so you can zoom in on counties. Neat!

Over on r/linguistics, the creator answered a few questions. And there’s an FAQ on the main page.

What is the grammar of thankyouverymuch?

 tl;dr – From a functional perspective, thankyouverymuch is an evaluative adjunct (a type of stance adjunct) according to Downing & Locke because it is “attitudinal, reflecting the subjective or objective attitude of the speaker towards the content and sometimes also towards the addressee” (2nd ed.; pp. 73-74, 234). According to the Longman Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English, thankyouverymuch is an attitude stance adverbial, which “convey an evaluation, or assessment of expectations” of the speaker’s attitude toward the proposition (p. 384).

From a discourse perspective, Blommaert (2005) would probably see thankyouverymuch as a performative element and a way for speakers to mark an orientation to what they have just said. But I’m not great at discourse analysis, so please tell me more in the comments.

Finally, syntactically, thankyouverymuch is a finite clause.

Read more to see a deeper analysis Continue reading “What is the grammar of thankyouverymuch?”

What’s up with “try to” and “try and”?

The other day my wife asked me about the constructions try to and try and. She said it came up at work and no one seemed to know why either one was used and which one was right. I had a vague recollection about learning this in the past, but it had slipped my mind.

So it was very nice to stumble across this article while I was researching something else. It’s called “Why does Canadian English use try to but British English use try and? Let’s try and/to figure it out” and it’s by Marisa Brook and Sali A. Tagliamonte. The article appeared in American Speech 91(3).

And then I came across this post, “We’re going to explain the deal with ‘try and’ and ‘try to’.” I swear sometimes that Merriam-Webster is checking my browser history. How do they know the exact thing that I’m interested in? It’s almost like people who are interested in language are interested in the same things.

What it boils down to is that the oft-criticized try and is most common in phrases where the word try means “attempt” and it’s been around for at least as long as the supposedly more standard try to. Brook and Tagliamonte show that what happened was try and became grammaticalized, which is fancy linguist speak for saying a word or phrase goes from just giving content or lexical information in a sentence (as nouns do) to serving a grammatical function in a sentence (as the past tense –ed does for verbs, for example). This means that the and in try and no longer works as a coordinator, but now functions as the marker of an infinitive verb (the verb that comes right after it). Pretty cool.

This all happened when the verb try was undergoing a shift in meaning. It originally meant “test” or “prove” (and it still means these things), but it started to also mean “attempt,” which is the definition that probably springs to mind first for many of us.

Brook and Tagliamonte show many interesting things about the two constructions – including how their use breaks down by age and education, and the increase of try and over time – but one thing that I thought was cool is this: try and has a strong preference to be followed by the verbs be and do, while try to can work with a wide range of verbs – even though these constructions essentially mean the exact same thing. Neat-o!

Biber et al. (1999, according to Brook and Tagliamonte) claim that try and is much more common in British English than American English, but I would really like to see more research on this, especially now that there are many more corpora available. I don’t have the time now to go search other corpora but I’m going to offer this to the students in my corpus linguistics course and I’ll update this post if any of them decide to research this. And I’ll update it if I look into it myself.

But go check out Brook and Tagliamonte’s article for lots more on try to and try andhttps://doi.org/10.1215/00031283-3701026.