Linguistics Joke

From one of my professors…

“Saying that something is located in Broca’s area is like saying that the reason a car runs has something to do with the front of it.”

Hotcha! Well said and kind of sums it up nicely, doesn’t it?

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And Read All Over Wuz Here

Recently, an Estonian friend sent me a link to The Chaos, an interesting poem which points out the irregularities of spelling in English. I’ve been seeing it pop up on Facebook for a little while now and although it is an impressive piece of poetry (for its content, not its meter), I don’t think many people think about why exactly it’s interesting. If you haven’t read it, go here and check it out. No need to read the whole thing, the first couple of lines will tell you what you need to know.

First, the poem was written by a Dutchman, Dr. Gerard Nolst Trenité, as an introduction to spelling irregularities for learners of English. In that, it’s quite amazing as the full version of the poem lists about 800 irregularities. But the real question is, why would English learners need to be told about the irregularities of English spelling? Presumably they would come across it in every class. Also, English certainly isn’t the only language with irregular spelling. What is amazing about The Chaos then is that it is a poem about a language with irregular spelling (English) by a native speaker of a language with irregular spelling (Dutch) and dedicated to a native speaker of a language with irregular spelling (French – do I really need a link here?).

Second, the poem is bound to trip up native English speakers in some places. Consider:

And I bet you, dear, a penny,
You say mani-(fold) like many,
Which is wrong. Say rapier, pier,
Tier (one who ties), but tier.

That tier/tier tripped you up at first, didn’t it? It’s because the context which the pronunciation is based on comes after the first instance of two homonyms – tier and tier. There are other examples presented without any context (does – third-person singular of do or plural of female deer?), but they really just point out what speakers of languages with irregular spelling already know – context is key.

Third (and somewhat related to the point directly above), mispronunciations are rarely examples of a non-native English speaker rhyming a word with another of similar spelling. Consider this line from the poem:

Hint, pint, senate, but sedate.

Have you ever heard a non-native speaker rhyme these words? I didn’t think so. If I was more of a dialect expert, I could speak better about this, but learners of English (whether as a first language or not) very clearly learn to do away with the notion that words with similar spellings always rhyme (or to base their pronunciations of unknown words on the pronunciation of words with similar spellings). This is very easy for humans to do.

Fourth, The Chaos is bound to not rhyme in some places for some native speakers. There’s a classic example of the difference in pronunciation between, for example, Brits and Americans in the last stanza:

Don’t you think so, reader, rather,
Saying lather, bather, father?

The different pronunciations of rather nicely encapsulate the problem with this poem, i.e. that English orthography is causing a problem with learning. This idea is not as spelled out in the poem as it is by (Dum Dum Dummmm) The English Spelling Society. According to their “Axioms,” the spelling irregularities of English make “literacy unnecessarily difficult in English throughout the world, and learning, education and communication all suffer.” Hmmm… sounds tempting, but at the risk of sounding like a crotchety old man (“no good rotten kids can’t bother to learn the language like I had to”), there are also some major problems with spelling reform.

I’m willing to kind of sort of suppose that English orthography could be easier on the eyes, but in light of the problems associated with spelling reform and a lacking body of research on dyslexia (both in and across languages with different orthographies), I’m left to wonder which is the bigger problem – irregular spelling or spelling reform? I also don’t think the spelling reformists take psycholinguistics and the capabilities of the human brain seriously enough.

Finally, and completely unrelated, is the English Spelling Society’s take on why English spelling should be more like Finnish spelling. It’s not that such a thing wouldn’t help, it’s just that they clearly don’t know much about the Finnish language. It’s hard to take a group seriously when they publish nonsense like this. I recommend those with knowledge of Finnish to head on over here for a few chuckles. Here are a couple of highlights with my comments:

NK and NG [in Finnish] are sounded as in English sinking. [Not by native Finnish speakers, that is.]

The lack of a B means that most Finnish ears cannot distinguish, eg, Big Ben from pig pen. Nor can they distinguish between shoes, choose and juice, and as they always stress the first syllable, they tend to pronounce interpret as interbreed. [Seriously, the Finns this guy was hanging out with either had a twisted sense of humor or they were retarded. Interbreed? WTF?]

Canadian Snowclones, eh?

Speaking of snowclones, I’m surprised that none of the linguistic sites I read have made a note of The Onion‘s take on them. It’s OK. I’ll do it, you guys.

On the map of Canada in their book, Our Dumb World: Atlas of the Planet Earth, they make fun of the original snowclone by marking a spot on the map with, “Inuit community that has 20 words for having 50 words for snow.”

As with most things Onion, I like it. How many words do we have for having words for things? If anyone knows of any or of any sites that have already wrote about this Onion joke, please let me know in the comments.

The South Philly Snowclone

I’d like to suggest an addition to the snowclone definition: X once did Y to Z. I call it the South Philly Snowclone.

A snowclone is a rhetorical trope, often used by journalists, which “conveys information by using a familiar verbal formula and the cultural knowledge of the audience.” The South Philly Snowclone’s template is:

X once did Y to Z

What the phrase has to do with South Philly is how often lazy sports journalists refer to the time Philly fans once threw snowballs at Santa Claus.

On the surface, it’s a phrase that’s technically true. Just like the Eskimos have more than one word for snow, Philly sports fans once threw snowballs at Santa Claus. But the devil is in the details.

Ray Didinger and John Pierron* explain the whole story better than I can, but here’s what you (linguists) need to know. On December 15, 1968, after a long and disappointing season, some Philadelphia Eagles fans threw snowballs at a guy in a Santa Claus costume who was not supposed to be on the field. Ever since then, sports journalists have been using this as proof of why Philly is home to sports fans from hell. They don’t use the more recent riots started by Canucks fans or Lakers fans or any of the incidents listed here (OK, except for two out of three here). They more often than not use the South Philly Snowclone.

What all this has to do with linguistics is that you have certainly heard or read the X once did Y to Z snowclone before. It’s usually followed with an implied “therefore” and “X can’t possibly be A.” Like other snowclones, it’s used across genres. Look out for it. The next time you see it, you’ll know that the writer is only as good as a run-of-the-mill lazy sports journalist.

In conclusion, Go Flyers!

*Hat tip Enrico Campitelli Jr. at The700Level.com.

You Guys Heard That?

If animals have language, do they hear voices?

Or, at what point does language and/or a brain become complex enough to make up imaginary voices?

Anyone interested in animal communication can see a list of Language Log posts dedicated to the subject. It comes up on Edmund Blair Bolles’ site, Babel’s Dawn, which is about the origins of speech. Stan Carey also sometimes talks about animal communication on his site, Sentence First. Here he discusses the linguistic capabilities of dogs. I don’t remember the idea of animals hearing voices ever being discussed on these sites and I don’t always read the comments. How would we even know if animals were hearing voices?

I’ve been interested in reading Daniel B. Smith’s book, Muses, Madmen, and Prophets: Hearing Voices and the Borders of Sanity (Amazon), since I first heard about it. I guess now I have another reason in case it says anything about how central hearing voices is the the human mind. You can see an interview with him on the Colbert Report here.

Warning! Assholes are Closer than they Appear!

Geoffrey Pullum and I have not always agreed on everything. I like to comment, and he hates comments. But in a recent language log post, Mr. Pullum mentioned talking to his son about “the ghastly crew of obnoxious multi-millionaires who dominate the newspapers, and how they keep threatening to achieve success even in the political arena.” And that’s when his son turned him on to the fact that we are living in “the age of the assholocracy.”

At first, I thought I agreed with Pullum. It really does seem like there are a ton of assholes in power these days. And it seems there are even more assholes vying to get into power. It’s easy to believe that the age of the assholocracy is upon us.

But then I realized that we’ve always been living in an assholocracy. Assholes in power has long been the rule, not the exception. Just open a history book. Those things are chock full of assholes. It’s a wonder there’s room for anyone else. Or, even better, go ask someone who’s not a white middle-class male. They’ll tell you all about the assholes in power.

Mr. Pullum uses Donald Trump, Rupert Murdoch, Silvio Berlusconi, and Vladimir Putin as examples of the assholocracy we’re living in. But these people are downright pussies (to continue the anatomical analogies) compared to previous media moguls and Italian or Russian leaders. Is it possible we’re at the end of the assholocracy and the start of the pussypublic? You wish. (Again, just following the anatomy metaphor.)

Instead, I think these assholes are starting to be assholes to their own kind – the other white middle-class males – at an equal rate that they historically were assholes to other kinds of people. The assholocracy has gone into self-destruct mode, or what political scholars refer to as a dicktatorship.