Tuesday February 7, 2006

Pat and Lee

Broadly speaking, there seem to be two traditions in the use of proper names in English-language examples in linguistics.  On the one hand, there's John and Mary—a little bland and apparently a little strongly-gendered for some tastes.  On the other hand, and more recently I think, there's Pat, Lee, Sandy, and their entourage of ambiguously-gendered friends.  (I associate this tradition with HPSG, but it's probably older than that.)  Today I ran into an odd use of the latter name set.

In my Structure of ASL class, we saw a video tape (remember video tape?), from about 1980 judging by the fashions, in which two actors demonstrated a brief ASL dialog.  The names of the characters were Pat and Lee—a fine example of the genderless name tradition, right?  Unfortunately, these were actors, not just names on a page, so the effect was ruined.  Pat was clearly a woman, and Lee was clearly a man.  The use of the names with underspecified gender was a little futile, I thought, especially considering Lee's porn-star moustache.

Do all languages commonly cited by linguists have de facto standard sets of names like these?  I recall noticing a lot of Hanako and Taro in a couple of articles about Japanese, but I don't think I've read widely enough to claim it's a trend.  The only other English-language-example name tradition I can recall is the tongue-in-cheek use of just the first names of pairs or groups of famous people—I gather Dick and Pat made a lot of appearances in the early 70's, for example.

Nixon Tangent:  In a Saturday astronomy class I took about 24 years ago (!) at CalTech, the instructor taught us the following mnemonic for the spectral classes of stars:

On Bad Afternoons, Fermented Grapes Keep Mrs. Richard Nixon Smiling

Heh.  It's educational and snarky (but I believe it was Betty Ford who was on the sauce).  The first seven letters (O, B, A, F, G, K, M) are the main sequence classes, but the last three (R, N, S) are for various special types of stars.  The list of special classes has grown over the years, though, so it looks like the Nixon mnemonic is obsolete.  You can find a list of this and other astronomy-related mnemonics here, and also on Wikipedia (although Wikipedia doesn't have the Nixon one).

[Now playing: "Watching the Detectives" by Elvis Costello
"She's filin' her nails while they're draggin' the lake..."]

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There is the infamous Zhongsan (though of course now that I'm typing rather than reading it, I'm not sure that I'm spelling it right) in Chinese linguistics. Someone once told me it's sort of akin to "John Doe."

Posted by: Bridget at Feb 7, 2006 2:31:23 PM

At least among papers written by Japanese people -in English-, using Taro (and Jiro and Saburo, even) and Hanako is quite common, like in work by Kuno or Shibatani, or Sag and such people (I'm thinking of the analysis of causatives). However, these people also use John and Mary in the Japanese sentences as well. And looking through what Japanese books I have (a book by USC-educated Kageyama Taro, Berkeely-educated Toshio Ohori, and native grammarian Hideo Teramura, and what I remember of Kamio Akio), there's not much Taro/Hanako action, though Teramura does use some Taro sentences. All of them use imported John/Mary sentences, though. Another common character is Mr. Smith (スミス先生).

And regarding star classification, I took astronomy from Alex Filippenko, who gave us this mnemonic: Oh Boy Alex Filippenko Gives Killer Midterms. It only takes you so far, but you can extend it as you like with adjuncts.

Posted by: Russell at Feb 7, 2006 9:58:51 PM

Hmm, in cryptography, no one cares about the gender. It generally goes alphabetically: Alice, Bob, Carol, Dave. And then there's Eve, who can eavesdrop on the communications.

Also, rarely do we capitalize the T in Caltech. :)

Posted by: Hao at Feb 7, 2006 10:31:30 PM

Also, rarely do we capitalize the T in Caltech. :)

Really? You should look into it—all the cool kids are using InterCaps.

Posted by: The Tensor at Feb 8, 2006 2:02:25 AM

If I remember correctly, Japanese names ending in -ro are usually male (ro means "son") and those ending in -ko are usually female (-ko means "child").

The most usual mnemonic for stellar spectral classes is "Oh Be A Fine Girl Kiss Me Right Now". Like many astronomers, I've always wondered why telling women about stellar spectral classes doesn't have the desired effect. One of my astronomy classes at Durham had a running joke of people writing alternatives on the board before the lecturer came in. One student suggested "Only Barmy Astronomers Find Great Kudos in Mnemonics". The French were conducting nuclear test in the pacific at the time, so I came up with, "On Baking Atoll, Frenchmen Grill Kippers Majestically (Recherche Nucleaire!)

Posted by: Pete Bleackley at Feb 8, 2006 2:12:56 AM

In high school biology, I was proud of coming up with a mnemonic for the stages of embryonic development (zygote, blastula, gastrula, embryo, fetus): "Zbigniew Brzezinski Goosed Ella Fitzgerald." My classmates weren't overwhelmed by my cleverness, for some reason.

Posted by: Ben Zimmer at Feb 8, 2006 10:33:10 AM

I'm trying to start a trend in Yolngu linguistics to use skin names. They take the full array of case marking, your examples don't get tabooed when someone dies, and although they're gendered, noone outside the Yolngusphere knows which is which. Hence all the Yan-nhangu dictionary examples with Wamuttjan.

If you'd tried to chat me up with that mnemonic, I know it wouldn't be the stellar spectral classes that would be the turnoff.

Posted by: Claire at Feb 8, 2006 12:34:49 PM

Regarding Pete Bleackley's comment, the endings "-ko" and "-ro" have the meanings he gives only insofar as parents pick kanji for the names that actually mean them. The association between Japanese names and meanings is arbitrary, and an obnoxious parent could associate that "-ko" ending with the meanings "sin", "flour", or "price", among others. There are laws in place to limit this sort of mischief, but you can still make innocent-sounding names mean some awful things.

Posted by: Semantic Compositions at Feb 8, 2006 2:36:26 PM

In reply to Claire, at least it's better than "Fancy a night out with the stars?", which I really did try once. Obviously it didn't work. Now I'm married, and so have no need for chat-up lines, which is just as well since all the ones I know are utterly useless.

Posted by: Pete Bleackley at Feb 9, 2006 2:50:57 AM