Sunday January 4, 2009

LSA 2009

I'll be attending the LSA 2009 meeting in San Francisco next weekend, and as in previous years, I think we should get together for drinks or food or something.  Now, if you read those posts about our previous gatherings, you'll find the following, which I still believe to be true this year:

  1. Some of us may not have arrived on Thursday
  2. Friday evening is the grad student mixer, which some of us will want to attend
  3. Saturday Friday evening is the ADS Word of the Year event

Given this, the last couple of years we haven't tried to organize a single event, but instead have designated a corner of the hotel lounge as the spot to hang out, if you're so inclined, after the day's activities wind down.  I plan to reconnoiter the hotel to find a good spot and announce it here Thursday evening—and unlike previous years, I'm just going to update this post rather than adding additional posts, so watch this space.  I see the Hilton has a place called the Urban Tavern, but it apparently closes at 10:30 every night, which is...disappointing.  I'll let you know what I find out.

Did you notice the antecedentless "we" in the first sentence of this post?  Who, you may ask, are "we"?  "We" are a loosely-defined set of linguistics bloggers, language bloggers, and blog readers, along with our colleagues, friends, and others (signifcant and otherwise).  Basically, if you're reading this, you're invited.  There's no minimum unique-visits-per-week or posts-per-month requirements.  (Whew!) 

Thanks to Claire and Russell for reminding me about this, and my apologies for taking so long to get around to it.  I've been busy, I swear!

[UPDATE:  Fritinancy points out that the ADS Word of the Year event is actually on Friday this year.  That makes Saturday evening more open than in previous years—maybe we should consider going to dinner after all?]

[UPDATE:  Well, I explored a bit.  The Urban Tavern is nice, but the tables do seem to be under hostess control, so we can't just wander in and stake one out.  The only other alternative I can see is the "lounge" area near the registration desk.  It gets of lot of traffic and is kind of noisy, but at least it has wireless.  What do you think?  Tavern or lounge?

Friday evening is going to be busy: in addition to the ADS WOTY vote, they're apparently giving an award to Language Log at the LSA business meeting.  Afterward, I'm planning to attend the computational linguistics session, possibly followed by the grad student mixer (because I'm frankly feeling a little old for grad student mixers).  I suggest we focus on a plan for Saturday.  Is there any good Chinese food within walking distance?

Oh, and did I see Semantic Compositions wandering around earlier?]

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Sunday October 5, 2008

It's Like Christmas in X

A couple of days ago I said, "It's like Christmas in September," then later in the same day a friend who wasn't around when I said it said the same thing.  Today, I read "It's like Christmas in October" somewhere (that's a blog citation, BTW).  Synchronicity gets me curious, and curiosity leads to blog posting, so I fired up (even though this isn't really a snowclone) to find out how frequently each month occurs as a filler in it's like Christmas in X.

Continue reading "It's Like Christmas in X"

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Thursday April 24, 2008

Green Smurf and Smurf Green

"In Schtroumpf vert et vert Schtroumpf, published in Belgium in 1972, it was revealed that the village was divided between North and South, and that the Smurfs on either side had different ideas as to whether the term smurf should be used as a verb or as a noun: for instance, the Northern Smurfs call a certain object a bottle smurfer, while the Southern Smurfs call it a smurf opener."  (from here)

Has anybody read this story?  I wonder if the two smurfalects also differed in other ways.  Did the position of nominal modifiers vary, as the title seems to imply?  And what's the structure of the title—is schtroumpf vert a variety of smurf and vert schtroumpf a shade of green?  Is either of the diasmurfs consistently smurf-initial or smurf-final, or do they have relatively free smurf-ordering?

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Wednesday April 2, 2008

Weygand or de Gaulle?

Over at Byzantium's Shores, blogger Jaquandor recently brought to my attention an apparently long-running controversy  about a line in Casablanca.  In the film, Ugarte (Peter Lorre) tells Rick (Humphrey Bogart) that he has letters of transit signed by General...somebody.  Opinions differ about which general it is that Lorre mentions.  Some hear de Gaulle, which would be a mistake on the part of the filmmakers, since Charles de Gaulle was the leader of the Free French forces, and his signature would be less than worthless in Vichy France.  Others hear Weygand, which makes more sense—Maxime Weygand was an official in the Vichy government and for a time was in charge of the North African colonies.

Continue reading "Weygand or de Gaulle?"

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02:31 AM in Film , Linguistics | Comments (22) | Submit: | Links:

Monday March 31, 2008

Postalveolars According to a Three-year-old

A few weeks ago, a staggeringly cute YouTube video made the rounds of the usual web sites.  It shows a three-year-old girl describing Star Wars.  Here it is, for those of you who somehow missed it:

If you're a Star Wars geek like me, you thought this was very cool and made you want to have kids like right now.  (My favorite comment on the MetaFilter thread about the video was "made me ovulate".)  If you're a linguistics geek like me, though, I'll bet you had a different reaction: "Hmm, what's going on with her postalveolar consonants?"

Continue reading "Postalveolars According to a Three-year-old"

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06:51 AM in Film , Linguistics | Comments (0) | Submit: | Links:

Friday February 8, 2008

Died in a[n] X Accident

Having gotten working again, it's time to put it to work.  A few weeks ago, the webcomic xkcd ran a strip consisting of a chart of the number of Google hits for variations on the pattern died in a[n] X accident.  I'm resisting the urge to explain the joke, because that's never a good idea, but it's worth noticing that this looks kind of like a snowclone (though it's not, about which more below). You're in my territory now, xkcd!

Continue reading "Died in a[n] X Accident"

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Wednesday February 6, 2008


As I occasionally do, I recently ran on a phrasal template to see what sorts of fillers could be found out on the 'net.   To my surprise, I got back zero results, which didn't seem right.  Some investigation revealed that Google has introduced a CAPTCHA to prevent automated queries with wildcards (the * operator), which is just how works.  Oops!

Continue reading "Throttling"

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Friday February 1, 2008

Joe Job

Today in a thread on Ask MetaFilter, I learned a new word (well, lexical item): joe job.  That's when someone sends out spam with the return address of another person they want to make look bad.  The AskMeFi poster actually uses it in a slightly broader sense that lacks the malicious intent.

Continue reading "Joe Job"

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Wednesday January 30, 2008

This I Believe #29

"I have come," [Frodo] said.  "But I do not choose now to do what I came to do.  I will not do this deed.  The Ring is mine!"


Continue reading "This I Believe #29"

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Friday January 4, 2008

Word Czar for a Day!

This week my local NPR station broadcast a call-in show inspired by Lake Superior State University's annual list of banned words.  The host, Ross Reynolds, opened the show by asking:

Are there certain words or phrases that you hate?  Are there cliches that make you grind your teeth?  Common misusage that sends you around the bend?  If you had the power, what words or phrases would you ban?  On the other hand, what are the new words or phrases or slang you adore?  Words that are perfectly descriptive or just fun to say?

To my utter lack of surprise, and in spite of Reynolds's persistent attempts to poke fun at the concept of an all-powerful "word czar" and to steer his listeners back to talking about their favorite words, the great majority of calls and emails were from frowny-voiced would-be language purifiers.  Quite of few of them used the word hate to describe their feelings about (what they perceive to be) non-standard English usage.  Really?  Hate?

Continue reading "Word Czar for a Day!"

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Wednesday December 19, 2007

LSA 2008

It's that time of year again—time to organize the fourth (!) annual language-blogger get-together at the upcoming LSA meeting in Chicago.  In previous years, we've had trouble finding a time that works for everybody, though we do seem to end up with a pretty big group nonetheless.  I think Grant Barrett's suggestion from last year—that we pick a corner of the hotel bar, designate it The Spot, and meet there casually as we're available in the evenings—worked out great, so I'll try to scout out a good spot again this year.

Do we want to get ambitious and try to schedule a dinner?  It'll be hard.  Thursday not everyone will be there, Friday is the business meeting and the grad student social, and Saturday is the conference reception.  Furthermore, the ADS Word of the Year vote is on Friday.  What say you all?

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Wednesday December 5, 2007

Everything2 You Know is Wrong!

Taking potshots at Wikipedia is a popular sport these days. I've indulged in it myself, and probably will again.  However, in all fairness, Wikipedia's a pretty good first reference for many topics.  It could certainly be much, much worse.  How much worse?  Well, it could be Everything2.  To see what I mean, consider a sample article about a famous semanticist.

Continue reading "Everything2 You Know is Wrong!"

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Wednesday October 17, 2007

A Tale of Two Geddies

Names are tricky.  Many of us are assigned them at birth and accept them without much thought.  Others are bolder, taking control of their arbitrary word-handles, shedding unwanted labels for others somehow more agreeable.  This is a common practice in show business, where stage names serve to distinguish performers from each other and from us ordinary folks.  This is a story of two such performers who, in their quest for uniqueness, landed at nearly the same spot in the vast name-space.

Continue reading "A Tale of Two Geddies"

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12:39 AM in Film , Linguistics , Music | Comments (3) | Submit: | Links:

Saturday September 1, 2007


Linguisics often involves finding and explaining patterns in languages, even if speakers of languages aren't consciously aware of the patterns.  Yesterday while reading Robert Sheckley's short story "Protection", I noticed such a pattern in English.  In the story, Sheckley (the same author who wrote "Shall We Have a Little Talk?") makes up a bunch of nonsense words to represent words in an alien language.  One of them is feeg, and it immediately struck me as odd-sounding.  Is feeg a phonetically possible English word?

Continue reading "-V̅g"

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Friday July 20, 2007

Gay is a Verb

Geoff Pullum (after dropping the bombshell that he's moving to Edinburgh) recently wrote about the mayor of West Sacramento's announcement that he "want[s] to start thinking of gay as a verb and not just a noun".  Pullum, himself no slouch in the grammar department, reacts by pointing out:

The linguistic fact, by the way, is that gay is primarily an adjective, though just like the adjective homosexual it has a secondary use as a count noun referring to a person who has the property in question.  If the mayor wants to start thinking of gay as a verb, is it transitive  ("I gayed him")?  Or intransitive ("How often do you gay")?  What meaning does he think of it as having?   When someone gays, what is it that he is doing?  What is gaying?  (Oops, I used a gerund.)

I can, however, pace Pullum, think of at least one usage of gay as a verb.

Continue reading "Gay is a Verb"

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11:47 PM in Linguistics | Comments (6) | Submit: | Links:

No Longer Ictic?

After discussing reading pronunciations in academic talks just a few days ago, I encountered a perfect example today in a talk at a conference.  All through the talk, the speaker used the pronunciation  [di.ˈɪk.tɪk] (roughly dee-IK-tik) for the word deictic.  The two standard pronunciations of deictic are  [ˈdaɪk.tɪk] (DIKE-tik) and the less common [ˈdeɪk.tɪk] (DAKE-tik), but you can hardly be expected to figure that out from the spelling.  I remember being surprised the first time I heard it spoken aloud—I had been pronouncing it [deɪ.ˈɪk.tɪk] in my head.  Apparently today's speaker came to a similar conclusion, although I can't rule out the possibility that she's a faithful reader of this blog and decided to attempt to pull off the prank I proposed in my earlier post.  If that's the case, then I salute you!

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Tuesday June 12, 2007

Blogging the 2007 Bee

Although we missed the live broadcast, thanks to the miracle of TiVo we were able to catch a late-night repeat of the final rounds of the 2007 Scripps National Spelling Bee.  What follows are some observations about the Bee and a discussion of the particular words the kids had to spell.  Fair warning: lots of spoilers, including most importantly the correct spellings of the words. 

Continue reading "Blogging the 2007 Bee"

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
11:20 PM in Linguistics , Television | Comments (9) | Submit: | Links:

Friday June 8, 2007

The Superiority of Generation X

Sign that you might be a big ol' nerd:

You're attending an invited talk by a big-name linguist, and while he's showing an example of a superiority violation found in the wild on the Web, you're thinking, "Hey...I'll bet that's from a piece of Generation X fanfic!"

Continue reading "The Superiority of Generation X"

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04:38 PM in Comic Books , Linguistics | Comments (7) | Submit: | Links:

next next and previous previous

Some languages, including English, have single words for 'yesterday' and 'tomorrow', but only multi-word phrases for 'the day before yesterday' and 'the day after tomorrow'.  Other languages have single words for those meanings; Japanese, for example, in addition to 昨日 /kinoo/ 'yesterday' and 明日 /ashita/ 'tomorrow', has 一昨日 /ototoi/ 'the day before yesterday' and 明後日 /asatte/ 'the day after tomorrow'.  In fact, it even has a word (which I was reminded of while using Jim Breen's indispensible WWWJDIC) for 'the day after the day after tomorrow', 明明後日 /shiasatte/, though there doesn't seem to be a corresponding term for 'the day before the day before yesterday'.

I'm curious how common lexical items like this are across the world's languages, and not just for temporal sequences.

Continue reading "next next and previous previous"

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Friday May 4, 2007


If you listen to the BBC/PRI radio show "The World", you're familiar with the daily feature called the Geo Quiz (along with its maddeningly catchy theme song).  In it, the audience is teased with the description of some location in the world and asked to guess where it is.  Shortly thereafter, the location is revealed, and a story having something to do with that location follows.  In the show of April 2nd, the answer to the Geo Quiz was Lake Baikal in Siberia.  The story was about a team who trekked across the lake when it was frozen in winter, a 435-mile journey from south to north that they'd originally intended to travel by kite-skiing.  Unfortunately, the winds didn't cooperate and they had to walk the whole way, dragging their sledges.  (Talk about buns of steel!)

At one point in the story, team member Conrad Dickinson made a claim that should sound familiar to readers of linguistics blogs:

Lake Baikal is famous for its winds.  A bit like the Inuit in northern Canada have 18 names for snow, the local people have 30 names for the famous winds.

Aha!  It's another variation on the original snowclone!

Continue reading "Windclone"

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Thursday April 12, 2007

Friendly Milk

"Hold the newsreader's nose squarely, waiter, or friendly milk will countermand my trousers."

This is from a hilarious sketch by Fry and Laurie (via), which you can watch after the jump.

Continue reading "Friendly Milk"

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Wednesday March 28, 2007

Notes on Hawaii

The Wife and I spent last week in Maui.  (Capsule review: paradise, plus good restaurants.)  Over the course of our stay, several linguistically interesting things happened, and I figured I should post about them.  What else is a language blog for?

Continue reading "Notes on Hawaii"

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Monday March 5, 2007

Pressing the Turd

"They press it, and all the food (in the turd) goes away.  All that remains is the sweat, the shit with the sweat in it.  Then they scratch it."

Continue reading "Pressing the Turd"

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Sunday March 4, 2007

A Serious

Many of you, no doubt, are familiar with the profusion of English collective nouns, which includes turns of phrase like a parliament of owls, a murder of crows, and many, many more.  These are also sometimes referred to as terms of venery, apparently the name for them popularized in An Exaltation of Larks by James Lipton.  (Yes, that James Lipton.)  At the moment, I'm catching up on a month of Language Log (a back-Log?), and I noticed the following typo in a post by Mark Liberman about the history of the site:

In October of 2003, we started to get somewhat serious about the enterprise, recruiting Geoff Nunberg and then a serious of other colleagues to join us.

Continue reading "A Serious"

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Saturday February 24, 2007

This I Believe #21

...that when borrowing words into English, especially when their number is unclear and they tend to get used as mass nouns, you should invent singular forms for them as if they followed the high-prestige Latin pattern, regardless of their actual language of origin.  Examples:

(First declension)  The warrior class of ancient Japan were the samurai.  Each samura traditionally carried two swords.

(Second declension masculine)  When my wife dances, she wears decorative bindi.  Sometimes, during a performance, the glue comes loose and she loses a bindus.

(Second declension neuter)  Often for dessert at a Middle Eastern restaurant I will order a plate of baklava.  Generally it comes on a plate containing several pieces, so that each person at the table can have their own baklavum.

If you want to go the extra mile, you can even back-form an irregular third declension singular, as in:

I recommend the tempura. When eating it, be sure to dip every individual tempus in the special sauce provided.  (Extra bonus: round trip Romance-language borrowing!)

Finally, if you're really feeling ambitious, you can even do Latin-style number concord:

Traditionally, an order of nigiri sushi consists of two pieces.  Each nigirus sushus is a ball of rice with fish or some other food laid on top.

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03:59 PM in Linguistics , This I Believe | Comments (11) | Submit: | Links:

Sunday February 18, 2007

New Radiation Symbol

The IAEA and ISO have announced an updated version of the venerable ionizing radiation warning symbol.  The original was easily the coolest of the warning symbols, whose only serious competition was the biohazard symbol (though I have a soft spot for the laser symbol, myself).  However, it suffered from a serious flaw.  As the IAEA press release says, the original symbol "...has no intuitive meaning and little recognition beyond those educated in its significance."  They have therefore designed the following supplemental symbol:

Hmm.  It's not everything it could be.

Continue reading "New Radiation Symbol"

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09:22 PM in Linguistics , News | Comments (14) | Submit: | Links:

Saturday February 17, 2007

More than Meets the Ear

Last week I heard a promo on the local NPR station for a show about the many meanings of the word transformers.  I didn't get a chance to listen to the show, which apparently discussed things like gang defection, personal style, and sexual identity.  What caught my attention was the way the announcer pronounced the word, which struck me as odd.  To my surprise, I seem to have two pronunciations of the word transformer in my mental lexicon with slightly different meanings, and I wonder if your judgments match mine.

Continue reading "More than Meets the Ear"

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Monday February 5, 2007

Fold the Exalted Dog

This quarter I'm working on a machine-translation project.  For starters, we're working with a set of seventeen sentences that exercise some simple grammatical phenomena.  I don't speak most of the languages that have landed on my plate, so as a first pass I've been running the sentences through machine translation systems on the web.  I realize it's old news that round-trip translations are funny, but the results for the English-Korean-English loop are especially dreadful.

Continue reading "Fold the Exalted Dog"

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Monday January 22, 2007

What Does the H Stand For?

I'm sure many of you have heard or used the expression Jesus H. Christ or one of its many variants, probably in connection with someone hitting himself in the thumb with a hammer or a similar mishap.  Have you ever wondered what the H stands for?  Cecil Adams wrote a column about this question more than thirty years ago, but he didn't have the Internet at his disposal.  I do, so to find and count all the variants of the expression, I fed it to my trusty snowclone script—though Jesus H. Christ doesn't have much syntax in it, so it probably isn't a phrasal template like a true snowclone, it's still of a form ("jesus X christ") the script can work on.  After the jump, therefore, I present to you: the many middle names of the Son of Man.

Continue reading "What Does the H Stand For?"

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04:45 AM in Linguistics | Comments (19) | Submit: | Links:

Tuesday January 9, 2007

LSA 2007

I'm back from the 2007 meeting of the Linguistic Society of America:

...and it was great.  There's nothing quite like hanging out with a thousand or so colleagues for four days to renew your enthusiasm for linguistics.  After the jump, you'll find my notes on the meeting.

Continue reading "LSA 2007"

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Saturday January 6, 2007

To Pluto

Here in lovely Anaheim, California, the American Dialect Society has done its annual thing.  The newly crowned Word of the Year is the transitive verb to pluto (and its passive variant to be plutoed), which is defined as:

[T]o demote or devalue someone or something, as happened to the former planet Pluto when the General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union decided Pluto no longer met its definition of a planet.

So it's kind of like unperson or deconsecrate, except for planets.  I'm a little disappointed that to pluto beat out, along with murse (a man's purse), surge (as in troop surge), climate canary, prohibited liquids, flog (a blog that flacks product), and YouTube, my pick macaca.  I'm not very disappointed, though, because I had strong opinions about the IAU Pluto decision, so I approve of the ADS's implicit mockery of it.

I got the word about The Word from a group of other linguistics bloggers who I'd left for a few minutes to drop my backpack off in my room.  They'd just been interviewed for the Discovery Channel, which means I may have missed my chance to break into media punditry.  It's probably for the best—it saved me the trouble of screaming, "Tenser, said the Tensor!  Tenser dot typepad dot com!  TENSER SAID THE TENSOR!  TENSER DOT TYPEPAD DOT COM!" at the camera until they dragged me away, and them the trouble of dragging me away.

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
04:22 AM in Linguistics | Comments (0) | Submit: | Links:


The Word of the Day for those of you attending the LSA Meeting is plenary.  You've all heard of plenary sessions, but I'll bet the great majority of you don't know what the word means.  Well, the OED defines it as:

2. a. Of an assembly, conference, etc.: having all members in attendance; fully constituted, fully assembled; esp. attended by all participants, who otherwise meet in smaller groups. Now freq. in plenary session.

Get that?  It means that when there's a plenary session, you're supposed to be there.  If you're not, you're a bad linguist.  For example, I didn't attend Friday evening's plenary address, and you know what?  I'm a bad linguist.


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Friday January 5, 2007

LSA Gathering: The Plan

OK, several people showed up to hang out at The Spot on Thursday night.  Beforehand, we left the hotel to eat dinner, and from what I could see along the way, there don't seem to be many nearby restaurants, just more hotels.  After some circling, we ended up eating at Catel in Downtown Disney, which wasn't much cheaper than the hotel restaurants.  (Tasty, though.)

Rather than risking a long walk on Friday, let's meet at 5:00 sharp in the lobby of the hotel right at the entrance to "The Avenue"—that's the corridor with all the restaurants along it on the first floor.  Look for me—I'll be wearing a black blazer and a gray shirt, carrying a black leather backpack, and wearing my name tag.  (You can look my name up in your program—I gave the talk about phonesthemes in Thursday's "Modelling [sic] Phonological Learning" session.)  If somebody (one of the locals?) knows of a convenient place nearby, we'll head there promptly at 5:05; otherwise, the Avenue has a bar for those who just want a drink and a couple of places to eat for those who want food.

See you at 5!

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
03:45 AM in Academia , Linguistics | Comments (2) | Submit: | Links:

Thursday January 4, 2007

LSA Update

It's on!  I'm at the Anaheim Hilton, and it's absolutely crawling with linguists.  As promised, I've checked out the various bars and restaurants.  The Avenue Bar looks like a good place for The Linguistics Blogger Spot—specifically, the back-right corner as you're facing the bar (the southwest corner, if I'm not turned around).  I'll be down there later tonight—look for the guy without the purple hair (though it's grown out a bit), wearing all black, looking relieved because his talk went smoothly earlier (thanks for asking), either using a laptop or reading, drinking a Shirley Temple.

Both the Italian and Japanese (sushi) restaurants look reasonably tasty, but the prices are pretty high, geared for Disneyland tourists.  This may argue for having the Friday get-together at the bar as well.  I'll do a little research on local restaurants and bars and see if anything is nearby—the area around the hotel looks pretty spread out, and we don't want to have to walk too far between sessions.

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
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Saturday December 23, 2006

More on LSA 2007

As previously mentioned, we linguistics bloggers are organizing a get-together at the upcoming LSA meeting in Anaheim.  So far, it looks like there's no evening time slot that works well for everyone.  The best one seems to be Friday from 5 to 7, but that conflicts with the ADS word-of-the-year extravaganza.  Various other suggestions have included lunch on Friday or Saturday and having a "spot", perhaps in the hotel lounge, where whoever happens to be free at any given moment can gather and hang out.

I propose the following, then: drinks (and dinner, if you care to order it) from 5-7 on Friday in one of the hotel restaurants (maybe the sushi place) with whoever can make it, plus a hang-out spot to be announced.  I suggest that, as happened last year, the 5-7 crowd on Friday plan to hook up with the ADS word-of-the-year folks after their moment in the sun.  (BTW, I wager 100 quatloos on macaca.)

How does that sound?  If you have any final suggestions or strong opinions, leave a comment.  Otherwise, check back here for details late on Thursday the 4th, when I will have had a chance to scout out the hotel restaurants and bars.

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
12:06 AM in Academia , Linguistics | Comments (4) | Submit: | Links:

Friday December 15, 2006

Roundly Cut Short

I'm not sure if there's a name for the following journalist's writing trick, but there ought to be because it's awesome.  First, an excerpt from this Washington Post article about the NBA returning to the old, leather ball:

The NBA has decided to go back to a traditional leather basketball, the league announced yesterday, ending an experiment with a new synthetic ball this season that has been roundly criticized by players.

Hee-hee!  "Roundly criticized"—get it?  Here's the same stunt again, this time in an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (motto: "Education?  Not high enough!") about HIV in Africa:

Circumcision of adult men appears to be a highly effective method of reducing HIV transmission, officials at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases announced on Wednesday.  At a meeting on Tuesday, the institute's Data and Safety Monitoring Board voted to cut short two large-scale randomized studies of circumcision in Africa.

"Cut short"—that's comedy gold.  (Also: ouch.)  So, does anyone know if there's a term for this sub-variety of pun often found in the first few sentences of news articles?

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
06:28 AM in Linguistics , News | Comments (11) | Submit: | Links:

Monday December 11, 2006

Gathering at LSA 2007

I propose we have another get-together of linguistics and language bloggers at LSA this year.  That would make it the Third Annual Linguist Blogger Social, and since previous installments have been wildly popular, with literally halves of dozens of attendees, I think we'd better start getting organized.  I put these three questions to you:

  1. What kind of gathering?  The last couple of years we've done dinner, which I'm certainly amenable to doing again, but I know dinner can be hard to schedule around.  Should we make it drinks in the hotel bar instead?
  2. Where?  This obviously depends on the answer to the previous question.
  3. When?  A glance at the LSA 2007 schedule shows that conference events finish at 8:30 on Thursday the 4th and at 8:00 on Saturday the 6th.  Sunday is presumably out because everyone will be gone.  Friday seems pretty full: a plenary address at 7:00, a grad student panel at 8:00, and a student mixer at 9:30; however, if you/we aren't planning to attend the business meeting, there is a window between 5:00 and 7:00.

The sooner we can decide on these details, the better we'll be able to plan.  Who's in?

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
04:27 PM in Academia , Linguistics | Comments (11) | Submit: | Links:

Friday December 8, 2006

LSA 2007 Schedule

As anyone who has attended can tell you (and I've mentioned before), the annual Linguistic Society of America meeting offers a daunting array of events.  This year on Saturday afternoon, for example, it looks like there are going to be about a dozen parallel talks, poster sessions, symposia, and workshops, so it's important to plan ahead to make the most of the conference.  To help you do so, I emailed the nice people at the LSA, got a copy of the schedule of events, put it into a consistent file format, figured out the iCal format, wrote a few (dozen) lines of Perl code, et voila!  The entire schedule for the conference is available as a public calendar on Google Calendar.

Continue reading "LSA 2007 Schedule"

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
08:59 AM in Academia , Linguistics | Comments (5) | Submit: | Links:

Thursday December 7, 2006

Japhetic Babbling?

I don't have much to add to the news of the recent "discovery" of a universal baby language in Australia (previously mentioned on Language Log), except to point out a possible connection between the work of "researcher" Priscilla Dunstan and the theories of Nikolay Marr.

Continue reading "Japhetic Babbling?"

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
05:25 AM in Linguistics , News | Comments (10) | Submit: | Links:

Sunday November 26, 2006

Friends in High Places

Quietly and without any fanfare, an important milestone has been reached.  Can you feel it?  As of a couple of weeks ago, every one of the linguists on my Ph.D. committee has been mentioned on Language Log.

Can you say the same?  No.  No, you can't.  (Unless you can, in which case feel free to leave a comment and declare your membership in my exclusive club.)

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
01:37 AM in Academia , Linguistics , Weblogs | Comments (3) | Submit: | Links:

Saturday November 25, 2006

Language Blogs

I feel out of touch.  In the early history of the linguistiblogosphere, way back around 2004 when dinosaurs ruled the 'net, it used to be easy to keep track of all the different language blogs—mostly because it was just Language Hat, Language Log, and a few others.  Now that every man, woman, and child on the face of the Earth has a blog, I have a hell of a time keeping track of everyone who's writing about language and linguistics any more.

Help me out.  If you have a language blog, leave a comment with a link and a description of your interests.  Feel free to leave one even if you know I already know about your blog—who knows, you might attract a few more readers.

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
08:50 AM in Linguistics , Weblogs | Comments (17) | Submit: | Links:

Linguistic Vignettes

Here are a few sites I've found out about recently, some by email, some by noticing links here via Technorati or Google. They all share a common theme: little vignettes made out of found snatches of language.  Great minds think alike, they say—it must be something in the water.  (There's water in the tubes, right?)

Continue reading "Linguistic Vignettes"

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
08:39 AM in Linguistics , Weblogs | Comments (3) | Submit: | Links:

Tuesday November 21, 2006

A New International Language!

Those of you interested in language standardization and auxiliary languages should head over to this post on Eigodaigaku.  In it, the author makes and defends his proposal for an international language: Japanese.

No, seriously.

Continue reading "A New International Language!"

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
04:15 PM in Japanese , Linguistics | Comments (18) | Submit: | Links:

Take on Me

Those of you who are of a certain age (or who watch too much VH1) will remember the mid-80's synth-pop video I'm thinking about. You know the one: it features a main character who enters a comic book world, a group of leather-clad toughs, and the lead singer of the band bravely rescuing a blonde damsel in distress.

Of course I'm referring to this classic video:

Continue reading "Take on Me"

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
04:02 PM in Linguistics , Music | Comments (8) | Submit: | Links:

Tuesday November 14, 2006

All Seven?

Pop quiz, hotshot.  Find the glaring error in the publisher's description of Mark Baker's Lexical Categories: Verbs, Nouns and Adjectives:

Mark C. Baker investigates the fundamental nature of nouns, verbs, and adjectives. He claims that the various superficial differences found in particular languages have a single underlying source which can be used to provide better definitions of these "parts of speech". The new definitions are supported by data from languages from every continent. Baker's book argues for a formal, syntax-oriented, and universal approach to the parts of speech, as opposed to the functionalist, semantic, and relativist approaches that have dominated the subject.

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
06:58 AM in Linguistics , Pop Quiz | Comments (16) | Submit: | Links:

Sunday November 12, 2006

One of the most popular sports in the linguisitblogosphere (along with decrying coverage of language issues in the mainstream press) is proposing snowclones and then examining their usage using search engines like Google.  I've taken part several times—see here and here for examples.  A typical post goes something like this:

  1. Hey, I think I've discovered a snowclone!
  2. If I search for it on Google I find the following variants...
  3. Of those, here are the few that occur most often...

In writing the most recent of my snowclone posts, it occurred to me that this process could easily be automated—so I automated it.

Continue reading ""

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
04:33 PM in Linguistics | Comments (6) | Submit: | Links:

Sunday November 5, 2006

Babel's Dawn

If you're interested in the origins of language, check out Babel's Dawn, a newish blog devoted to the subject—or rather, to "the origins of speech", a distinction the blog's author Edmund Blair Bolles defends in his inaugural post.  See also his discussion of the controversy about starlings learning recursive grammars (which I wrote about here).  In that post, he mentions an aspect of the debate I hadn't heard about: Chomsky apparently responded to a question about the controversy emailed to him by a blogger on MySpace.

[Babel's Dawn actually began about a month and a half ago, but I'm just now catching up with my blog-related email, very late as usual.  Apologies all around.]

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
07:11 AM in Linguistics , Weblogs | Comments (0) | Submit: | Links:

Sunday October 29, 2006


Some of the phrasal templates that have come to be known in the linguistiblogosphere as snowclones seem only to appear in certain discourse contexts.  A few weeks ago I wrote about one such, Where have you gone, X?, which seems to turn up all the time in titles.  Recently, another title-specific snowclone occurred to me: slouching towards X.

Continue reading "Slouching"

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
05:16 PM in Linguistics | Comments (3) | Submit: | Links:

Tuesday October 24, 2006


I've been seeing posters all over Leipzig for the new Enigma album.  Remember EnigmaThey did that new-agey song "Deep Forest" [Update: Wrong!  Deep Forest was actually a similar-but-distinct group from the same era...] about a million years ago?  Yeah, they're still around, and they've been based in Germany all along—you could have knocked me over with a feather.

Continue reading "Σnigma"

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
04:34 PM in German , Linguistics , Music | Comments (9) | Submit: | Links:

Friday October 6, 2006

The Variety -er

As I've mentioned before, the subject of one of my generals papers (which has been accepted, to my initial gratification and now increasing alarm, for LSA 2007) was about phonesthemes.  Soaking in phonesthemes for a couple of months has predisposed me to be on the lookout for sound-meaning correspondences in the English lexicon that might or might not be morphemes, depending on how you squint at them.  One such pattern seems to be found only in slanguage, the dialect peculiar to Variety magazine: the suffix -er meaning  'work of entertainment'.

Continue reading "The Variety -er"

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
04:01 PM in Linguistics | Comments (5) | Submit: | Links:

Tuesday September 26, 2006

Where Have You Gone?

Best.  Blog post title.  Ever.  Wish I'd thought of it.

Come to think of it, "Where have you gone, X" looks an awful lot like a snowclone.  I wonder what Google has to say about it?

Continue reading "Where Have You Gone?"

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
11:42 PM in Linguistics | Comments (1) | Submit: | Links:

Monday September 25, 2006


Here's a puzzler.  The opening to Rush's early prog-rock-meets-D&D masterpiece "By-Tor and the Snow Dog" goes:

The Tobes of Hades
Lit by flickering torchlight
The Netherworld is gathered in the glare
Prince By-Tor takes the cavern
To the north light
The sign of Eth is rising in the air
By-Tor, knight of darkness,
Centurion of evil
Devil's prince

(Bonus points if you now have the song running through your head.)  The question, gentle reader, is this: what the hell are tobes?

Continue reading "Tobes"

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
08:17 PM in Linguistics , Music | Comments (14) | Submit: | Links:

Thursday September 21, 2006

Hugo Chávez: Syntactician?

It's not often that theoretical syntax is mentioned on the world stage, but that's just what happened yesterday at the United Nations in New York.  According to the Associated Press account of Hugo Chávez's speech:

At the start of his talk, Chavez held up a book by American writer Noam Chomsky ... and recommended it to everyone in the General Assembly, as well as to the American people.

"The people of the United States should read this ... instead of the watching Superman movies," Chavez later told reporters.

Here's a photograph of that historic moment:

I guess Chávez is into minimalism.  Who knew?

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
02:35 AM in Linguistics , News | Comments (17) | Submit: | Links:

Tuesday September 12, 2006

Cha-Cha Says "I Love You"

Today's implausible animal language claim comes from none other than veteran newsfixture Barbara Walters.  Apparently, she has claimed on The View that when she told her Havanese dog Cha-Cha that she loves her, the dog replied back, "I love you".

The best part is that the illustrious Ms. Wawa plans to bring a friend who witnessed the incident on the show to back her up.  I guess now I have to believe her, on account of she has an eyewitness, not to mention the keen powers of observation she's developed in forty years of celebrity interviews hard-hitting journalism.

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
03:45 PM in Linguistics , News | Comments (2) | Submit: | Links:

Friday September 1, 2006

Bits, Nats, and Hartleys

An important concept in a recently-completed generals paper of mine was mutual information, a measure of how much information knowing the value of one random variable tells you about another.  Since it's a measure of information, you might expect that the units of mutual information are bits, and you'd be right, much of the time.  Bits are the most commonly used units nowadays, but they're not the only possible ones.

Continue reading "Bits, Nats, and Hartleys"

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
04:26 AM in Computers , Linguistics | Comments (0) | Submit: | Links:

Monday August 21, 2006

My Favorite German Words

Since we're going to be spending ten weeks in Germany this fall, The Wife and I took six weeks of intensive German classes this summer.  Before the classes, I knew almost no German, except for a few phrases from comic books (i.e. Nightcrawler) and WWII movies.  Now, I know enough German to realize that there's way too much grammar in German.  (Whose idea was grammatical gender, anyway?  Could I take a pass on that?)  Anyway, over the course of the class I kept track of German words that I thought were, well, funny-sounding.  [If you're German, you might want to bail out now before I make fun of your language.]

Continue reading "My Favorite German Words"

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
02:14 AM in Linguistics | Comments (35) | Submit: | Links:

Saturday August 12, 2006


In an article on Slate about Oliver Stone's movie World Trade Center, Rebecca Liss wrote the following sentence:

He never imagined that he would be involved in one of the few and most memorable rescues of Sept. 11.

I know what she means, but I really want to slap a star on that sentence.  Something about the coordination is odd, but I'm not sure what.

Continue reading "WTF on WTC"

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
09:42 PM in Linguistics | Comments (7) | Submit: | Links:

Saturday August 5, 2006

Python vs. Perl vs. C++

Last month I described a program I wrote for a machine translation project in Perl and how it turned out to be much slower than I expected.  As you may recall, I rewrote the program in C++, and it was a hundred times faster.  I suspected this was due to all the conversion in Perl back and forth from strings to floating point numbers in the program, and to all the string copying  necessary for function calls.  Some people (in person and in the comments) suggested I should try rewriting it in Python, which has native floating point numbers, to see if it was any faster.

Continue reading "Python vs. Perl vs. C++"

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
05:11 AM in Computers , Linguistics | Comments (28) | Submit: | Links:

Friday July 28, 2006

Bolinger on Eggcorns

In doing some background (re-)reading for a generals paper about phonesthemes, I came across a passage in Dwight Bolinger's 1949 article "The Sign Is Not Arbitrary" (Boletín del Instituto Caro y Cuervo, 5: 52-62) that relates some kinds of sound-meaning patterns in natural language lexicons with what we now call an eggcorn around the linguisitiblogosphere.

Continue reading "Bolinger on Eggcorns"

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
02:16 AM in Linguistics | Comments (0) | Submit: | Links:

Monday July 24, 2006

Linguist vs. Linguist

There's been an interesting exchange going on over at Anggarrgoon between that blog's author Claire and Steve Kaufmann of (see the posts and comments here and here).  The discussion has to do, in part, with the distinction between two senses of the word linguist—one of which means 'a person who knows languages' and the other, 'a person who studies linguistics'.  Steve is a linguist(1), and doesn't seem to have much use for linguists(2).  Claire has been arguing that the two kinds of linguists aren't really that far removed, and that linguistics should also be of interest to linguists(1), but Steve doesn't seem convinced.  It's a linguist cage match!  (It might not be a fair fight, though, since Claire is both a linguist(1) and a linguist(2)—I think she has him surrounded.)

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
05:20 AM in Linguistics | Comments (10) | Submit: | Links:

Thursday July 20, 2006

Two Word Moments

In an early post on this blog, I described what I called "a word moment of the second kind"—suddenly realizing the etymology of a word you've used many times before.  In the last couple of days I had two of these in rapid succession.  Details after the jump.

Continue reading "Two Word Moments"

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
03:54 AM in Linguistics | Comments (5) | Submit: | Links:

Thursday July 6, 2006

Perl vs. C++

As I mentioned in a previous post, I took a computational linguistics class in the spring that focused on multilingual processing.  One of the two major assignments for the class involved the use of GIZA++ to train alignment models for a bilingual corpus of French and English text.  In the course of cobbling together a little software system to complete the assignment, I made an engineering decision that had a drastic effect on the performance of one part of the system: I wrote it in Perl.

Continue reading "Perl vs. C++"

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
02:28 AM in Linguistics | Comments (5) | Submit: | Links:

Saturday July 1, 2006

Named Archetypes

I've been thinking recently about an interesting group of English expressions that, for lack of an accepted term (that I know of), I'm going to call named archetypes (NAs).  These are expressions that satisfy three criteria:

  1. They contain an English first name (personal name, forename, Christian name—you know what I mean)
  2. They do not refer to a particular person, but rather to any person with a particular quality
  3. They can only refer to individuals, not to groups

Continue reading "Named Archetypes"

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
02:12 AM in Linguistics | Comments (27) | Submit: | Links:

Wednesday June 21, 2006

LSA Summer Meeting

This week I'll be attending the LSA Summer Meeting and the co-located Digital Tool Summit—look for the guy with the purple hair.  Anybody else planning to be there?  If so, we should meet up for dinner or drinks so we can tell each other hilarious inside jokes about the linguistiblogosphere.

You know you want to.

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
04:11 AM in Linguistics | Comments (3) | Submit: | Links:

No Longer Visible?

A couple of years ago, I read and enjoyed David Sacks's book Language Visible: Unraveling the Mystery of the Alphabet from A to Z.  It was a fun exploration of the history of the writing systems that preceded the English 26-letter alphabet, though it was definitely aimed at a popular rather than a technical (i.e. linguistics) audience.  Recently I was browsing through the Linguistics section at my local bookstore and came across a more recent book that looked like it covered similar ground, titled Letter Perfect: The Marvelous History of Our Alphabet From A to Z.  Before I bought it, though, I fortunately noticed that the cover design of Letter Perfect was suspiciously similar to that of Language Visible.  It turns out they're the same book, which has been mysteriously retitled for the paperback edition.

What's up with that?  Do publishers retitle books like this all the time and I've never noticed it?  It seems like a bit of a deceptive practice.

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
02:26 AM in Linguistics | Comments (6) | Submit: | Links:

Saturday June 10, 2006

Norwegian Meteorite

Check out this report of a large meteorite landing in northern Norway and exploding with the force of an atomic bomb.  Yikes!  Good thing it came down in the middle of nowhere and not over a city.

I found this clause orthographically entertaining:

...Norway's best known astronomer Knut Jørgen Røed Ødegaard told

I think it could be improved, though.  How about:

...Nørway's best knøwn astrønømer Knut Jørgen Røed Ødegaard tøld Aftenpøsten.nø.

Yeah...that's more like it.

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
05:28 PM in Linguistics , Science | Comments (1) | Submit: | Links:

Comparative Linguistics via Language Modeling

For a computational linguistics class last quarter, I tried applying statistical modeling techniques to the problem of detecting genetic relationships among human languages.  To find the relationships, I:

  • Downloaded the text of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 49 different languages written in some variant of the Latin alphabet.
  • Filtered the texts to remove punctuation, convert everything to lower case, and replace every accented or derived character with one of the 26 plain ASCII letters—é with e, ß with s, ł with l, and so forth.
  • Then, in a loop:
    • Trained n-gram models of order 5 using SRILM on the sequence of characters in each language.
    • Used each model to calculate the perplexity of the character sequences of every other language, looking for the language pair with the lowest perplexity.
    • Merged the most-similar pair of languages into a single file, treating it as a new language, reducing the number of texts by one.
    • Repeated this process until all languages had been merged into a single file.

The procedure produced a binary-branching tree of inferred relationships between the languages.  What to see what it looked like?

Continue reading "Comparative Linguistics via Language Modeling"

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
04:20 AM in Linguistics | Comments (7) | Submit: | Links:

Tuesday June 6, 2006

Antedating Shakepeare

Today on a couple of different blogs I came across links to a list of 150 everyday expressions that supposedly originated in the works of Shakespeare.  It's an interesting list, and Old Will was surely a very inventive writer, but I was suspicous that some of the expressions might not have been coined by him.  I turned to the obvious resource (the OED) and discovered that at least eighteen of the expressions have earlier citations.  Whoops!

Continue reading "Antedating Shakepeare"

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
11:32 PM in History , Linguistics | Comments (4) | Submit: | Links:

Academia in a Nutshell

This last weekend was the retirement party for one of the pillars of our department, though "retirement" may be a little strong—it sounds like he's planning to remain fairly active as an emeritus professor, which is good news because he's on my committee.  I waffled about whether to attend or not—I was (and still am) up to my eyeballs in a language modeling project—but finally decided to put in an appearance.  When I got there, about an hour late, I immediately ran into a group of four other grad students with a worrisome scheming look in their eyes.  They were planning something.

Continue reading "Academia in a Nutshell"

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
03:18 PM in Academia , Linguistics | Comments (0) | Submit: | Links:

Thursday June 1, 2006

Two from No-Sword

No-Sword is a blog about Japan and Japanese culture which you should definitely be reading if those things are your cup of tea.  More than a month ago, I made a note to myself to write about two posts there, and I'm finally getting around to them today.  Better late than never!

Continue reading "Two from No-Sword"

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
02:13 AM in Japanese , Linguistics | Comments (1) | Submit: | Links:

Tuesday May 16, 2006

On of Nazareth

I just wanted to amplify a bit on a point in two recent Language Log posts by Mark Liberman and Bill Poser about the use of geographical epithets as surnames, inspired in particular by Poser's comment about James Van Allen's surname.  To those who object to the use of da Vinci since it's a prepositional phrase, I have an example for you to consider that might convince you to soften your position.  Ready?

Continue reading "On of Nazareth"

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
11:01 PM in Linguistics | Comments (13) | Submit: | Links:

Stupid Linguistics Tricks

I am easily amused, so I assume other people are the same way.  Even when I write about linguistics, then, I try to squeeze in some wit to keep the reader awake.  My favorite trick to pull is to abuse the linguistics-writing convention of italicized examples in sentences in order arrange ungrammatical strings of identical words.

Continue reading "Stupid Linguistics Tricks"

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
04:37 PM in Linguistics | Comments (4) | Submit: | Links:

Tuesday May 9, 2006

Fencing Etymologies

Have you ever picked up a new vocabulary word in conversation, guessing its meaning purely from context, and then discovered later that you guessed completely wrong?  Stop looking at me that way, you know you have.  (Is there a name for the phenomenon?)  I've had this happen to me with two separate bits of terminology associated with modern sport fencing: homologated and maraging.

Continue reading "Fencing Etymologies"

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
05:17 AM in Fencing , Linguistics | Comments (12) | Submit: | Links:

Thursday May 4, 2006

A Cross-Linguistic Perspective

Over at Jabal al-Lughat, Lameen Souag has dug up an example of the Cardinal Sin of Linguistics: making universalist claims based on a tiny sample of languages, especially if it's a sample containing just one, your native language.  (Speakers of English seem particularly prone to this sin.)  In this case, a study of perception verb clauses covers the following language sample: English, German, Dutch, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese.

Sigh.  If you can't bring yourself to look outside Europe, at least expand your search one shelf to the left and skim through the Finnish and Hungarian grammars.  What's the worst that could happen?

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
09:10 PM in Linguistics | Comments (5) | Submit: | Links:

Thursday April 27, 2006

A Little Bird Told Me

It looks like Mark Liberman is going to give the full Language Log treatment to yesterday's assertion by the AP that songbirds can learn grammar; nevertheless, I'm still going to take a whack at summarizing and then criticizing the article in Nature that prompted the news.  I'm writing this up partly as an exercise in puzzling out the details of a technical paper, and partly becaues I think the researchers have made claims that are too strong.  (You can find the article by going to the table of contents for the current issue and scrolling down to "Recursive syntactic pattern learning by songbirds", but you need to be a subscriber or access it through a library with a site license.)

Continue reading "A Little Bird Told Me"

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
06:40 AM in Linguistics | Comments (3) | Submit: | Links:

Thursday April 6, 2006

Haruai Name Taboos

In the lexical ambiguity seminar I'm auditing this quarter, we just read the second chapter of Jinyun Ke's dissertation Self-organization and Language Evolution: System, Population and Individual.  At one point she discusses a phenomenon in which homophones disappear due to interference from name taboos, and I think her example is worth sharing.

Continue reading "Haruai Name Taboos"

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
03:08 AM in Linguistics | Comments (1) | Submit: | Links:


Over at Language Log they've been carefully tracking uses of the newly-minted adjective brokeback.  I just discovered one more to add to the pile.  It occurs late in this excellent April Fools story from Locus, which you should go read before I spoil if after the jump.

Continue reading "Brokeback"

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
02:39 AM in Linguistics | Comments (1) | Submit: | Links:

Sunday April 2, 2006

Puzzle 17

For their pledge drive—which, I note in passing, appears to be synchronized with NPR's—the folks at the LINGUIST List have created a series of web-based puzzles called "Lexicon: A Linguistic Game Without Rules".  Some of the puzzles are easy; some are harder.  I'm currently stalled on the seventeenth puzzle, as are Heidi and, the last time I talked to him, trochee.  I want to finish the game, so let's cheat collaborate!

Continue reading "Puzzle 17"

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
05:10 AM in Linguistics | Comments (12) | Submit: | Links:

Monday March 20, 2006

More Latin Orthography

A few months ago, I wrote about the Claudian letters, which were proposed by Emperor Claudius to augment the Latin alphabet to handle some sounds it lacked.  More recently, I mentioned that I read W. Sidney Allen's Vox Latina: The Pronunciation of Classical Latin.  Allen refers to the Claudian letters at a couple of points; what's more, he also discusses some other little-known innovations and edge cases in the Latin writing system.  The innovations dealt primarily with two problems: how to write geminates, and how to differentiate the vowels i and u from the semivowels written the same way.

Continue reading "More Latin Orthography"

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
01:00 AM in Linguistics | Comments (4) | Submit: | Links:

Wednesday March 15, 2006


Here's a story about an odd vocal artform from Monday's episode of the NPR show Day to Day.  It's called "eephing" and it' to describe.  Kind of like scat meets beatbox, except with more banjo.  Definitely check out the sidebar samples, including a number called "Yakety Eeeph" that you may recognizes as that song from Benny Hill.

Continue reading "Eephing"

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
01:27 PM in Linguistics , Music | Comments (8) | Submit: | Links:

Tuesday March 7, 2006

The Foe

In reading about different types of supernovae on Wikipedia, I read about a new-to-me unit of measurement—the foe:

A foe is a unit of energy equal to 1044 joules.

To measure the staggeringly immense amount of energy produced by a supernova, specialists occasionally use a unit of energy known as a foe, an acronym derived from the phrase fifty one ergs, or 1051 ergs. This unit of measure is convenient because a supernova typically releases about one foe of observable energy in a very short period of time (which can be measured in seconds). In comparison, the total output of the Sun over its entire lifespan (billions of years) is about a tenth of a foe.

1051 ergs, huh—better put on some sunscreen.  As long as we're talking about absurdly high energy measurements, also check out the article about the so-called Oh-My-God particle, a cosmic ray particle observed in 1991 with about the same amount of energy as a fastball.  (hat tip for getting me reading about this stuff: today's APOD)

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01:27 AM in Linguistics , Science | Comments (5) | Submit: | Links:

Wednesday February 22, 2006

Physics Envy

I was watching a recent episode of Nova about the neutrino titled "The Ghost Particle", and at one point I was nearly overcome by a powerful wave of pure physics envy.  In discussing the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory, a huge ultraclean spherical acrylic tank of heavy water located two kilometers below the surface of the Earth in a nickel mine in Ontario, Canada, Prof. David Wark said:

When the SNO detector was finished, the exact center of the SNO detector has the lowest level of radiation of any point in the Solar System.

Continue reading "Physics Envy"

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06:39 PM in Linguistics , Science | Comments (7) | Submit: | Links:

Monday February 20, 2006

A Word is Born

Lightning strikes twice in one day in Slate's "Five-Ring Circus" coverage of the 2006 Winter Olympics.  First, Julia Turner suggests the term sno-bo-cross for the much clunkier snowboard cross, simultaneously strengthening the resemblance to its etymon motocross and doing away with the awkward rdcr cluster.  Sounds like a winner!  Later, Seth Stevenson suggests that in the future we'll refer to instances of "hubristic self-immolation" as pulling a Jacobellis.  I'm more doubtful about this one.  I think the name Jacobellis lacks the punchy quality of a boycott or a lynch—but it's up to the community of English speakers to decided if it catches on, not me.

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02:47 AM in Linguistics | Comments (1) | Submit: | Links:

Thursday February 16, 2006

On Liquid

For Christmas, I asked for and received a copy of W. Sidney Allen's Vox Latina: The Pronunciation of Classical Latin.  It's fairly short, but a good read, packed with all sorts of interesting historical and linguistic tidbits.  The meat of the book is Allen's examination of each Latin phoneme one by one, in which he discusses the various contexts where it occurs and the evidence for its pronunciations in those contexts.  In the section titled Liquids, he discusses the origin of the term liquid, which it had never occurred to me to wonder about.

Continue reading "On Liquid"

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Tuesday February 14, 2006

Hugo SIPs

Some time after Amazon added the "Search Inside!" feature, they also began displaying a list of "SIPs" and "CAPs" for most searchable books.  CAPs are Captitalized Phrases that occur frequently in the book.  They usually include things like character and place names.  SIPs (Statistically Improbable Phrases) are more interesting.  They're characteristic phrases that occur more often in the book in question than in all the other searchable books.  To show you what SIPs look like, I've gone through the (searchable) novels that have won the Hugo Award and collected their SIPs.  It's interesting to see how the SIP algorithm sometimes successfully distills the flavor of the language of a novel (and sometimes not).

Continue reading "Hugo SIPs"

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10:47 PM in Linguistics , Science Fiction | Comments (13) | Submit: | Links:

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.

Continue reading "Pat and Lee"

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12:21 PM in Linguistics | Comments (9) | Submit: | Links:

Tuesday January 31, 2006

Virginia Algonquian

[I meant to post about this last week and forgot, but I haven't seen any mention of it in the linguistiblogosphere except for this post on Linguaphiles.]

Terrence Malick's new film The New World is a retelling of the story of Pocahontas and John Smith.  As this entry in MSNBC's Cosmic Log describes, Malick ran into a small problem when trying to figure out what languages his characters would speak:

Malick thought he could just find some contemporary speakers of the language that was used by Pocahontas and her tribe in pre-colonial Virginia — and he was somewhat surprised to find out that the language had been extinct for more than 200 years.

A less rigorous director might have given up, but Malick instead turned to Blair Rudes, a linguist at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte who specializes in past and present American Indian languages. Rudes' work to reconstruct and revitalize the Virginia Algonquian language might itself make for a good movie — or at least a History Channel documentary.

Continue reading "Virginia Algonquian"

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02:39 PM in Film , Linguistics | Comments (5) | Submit: | Links:

Friday January 27, 2006

T9 Collisions

There are several different methods for entering text messages into mobile phones.  The least-common-denominator method that all phones seem to have is the one where you hit number keys repeatedly for different letters—i.e. "1" for "a", "11" for "b", "111" for "c".  This works, but it takes a lot of key presses.  To make things easier, there are at least a couple of predictive text methods that try to guess what you're spelling using only a single key for each letter.  The one I'm most familiar with is T9, which uses a dictionary to narrow down the possibilities and guess the word you mean.  Suppose you want to enter the word "of".  Using the multi-tap method, you'd press "666333".  Using T9, you'd just press "63", then software uses a dictionary to exclude words that you didn't mean—there are a lot of nonsensical possiblities like "nf"—and eventually produces "of".  That's two key presses instead of six, which is a nice improvement—but, as you may have guessed, there's a problem.

Continue reading "T9 Collisions"

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03:26 PM in Linguistics | Comments (12) | Submit: | Links:

Monday January 23, 2006


In a recent post over at Language Log, Geoff Pullum quotes President Bush's tongue-in-cheek defense of his now-infamous flub "Is our children learning?":

Then there is my most famous statement: "Rarely is the question asked, is our children learning."  Let us analyze that sentence for a moment.  If you're a stickler, you probably think the singular verb "is" should have been the plural "are."  But if you read it closely, you'll see I'm using the intransitive plural subjunctive tense.  So the word "is" are correct.

The punchline, which relies on the humor value the string of technical grammatical terms "intransitive subjunctive tense", reminds me of my favorite grammar joke.

Continue reading "Scrod"

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02:58 PM in Linguistics | Comments (4) | Submit: | Links:

Wednesday January 18, 2006

More Words to Live By

For a class I'm taking this quarter on the structure of American Sign Language, I'm reading an article from Science about Nicaraguan Sign Language (abstract here).  Near the end of the article, the author quotes a remark by Lila Gleitman about the extent to which research on NSL supports an innate language faculty, but I think her words are more broadly applicable:

If you know the literature, you can maintain positions all along the spectrum and not make an ass out of yourself.

Well said, but it's probably not a good idea to underestimate my ability to make an ass out of myself—just when I seem to have it under control, I'll turn around and surprise you.

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11:06 PM in Linguistics | Comments (1) | Submit: | Links:

Sunday January 15, 2006

Sage Advice

I'm in the middle of revising my thesis for submission to Linguistic Typology and in the journal's very thorough instructions for contributors, I came across a bit of cleverly-worded advice that I thought was worth repeating:

Avoid being sexist, ageist, racist, X-centric, plagiarist, libellous, or dull.

Words to live by, I say, and not just when you're writing.

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07:01 AM in Linguistics | Comments (4) | Submit: | Links:

Tuesday January 10, 2006

Clearing the Inbox

One of the nice things about having a blog is that readers are sometimes inspired to send me email about subjects that I find interesting.  I then proceed to sit on those emails for as long as six months before taking any action.  This is because I am lazy; also, I am somewhat rude.  By way of apology, then, here are some things I should have posted about weeks or months ago.

Continue reading "Clearing the Inbox"

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02:19 PM in Linguistics | Comments (1) | Submit: | Links:

Monday January 9, 2006

LSA Summer Meeting 2006

There was an announcement before the Presidential address at last weekend's LSA meeting that caught my attention.  As mentioned here, this summer the LSA is going to have another meeting (i.e. conference) instead of the usual Summer Institute, and this will be true in alternating years from now on.  Better, the summer meetings will focus on student rather than faculty presentations.  This summer's meeting is going to be in Lansing, Michigan, and what's more, the NSF grant mentioned on the Summer Meeting web page has come through and they expect to be able to offer funding for all student presenters' travel and lodging.  Cha-ching!

Continue reading "LSA Summer Meeting 2006"

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06:14 PM in Linguistics | Comments (0) | Submit: | Links:

Slate on MT

There's an interesting article in Slate today that describes various kinds of machine translation software.  It's written by a translator who heard a rumor at his company that he and his fellow humans were about to have their work "supplemented" by software, and so decided to look into the quality of various MT packages.  Many of the packages produce crap, but the one statistical MT package, Language Weaver, seems to surprise him with its accuracy.

Continue reading "Slate on MT"

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05:41 PM in Linguistics | Comments (1) | Submit: | Links:

Friday January 6, 2006

Embarrassed by the Riches

I'm sitting here going through my LSA program book, diligently underlining speakers and topics that seem interesting, and the sheer number of talks that I want to see is daunting.  On Friday morning from 9 to noon, for example, there are no fewer than ten different sessions and workshops going on, each in a separate room and consisting of about half a dozen talks, and there's a poster session running all morning as well.  I'll have to flit from flower to flower in order to take in everything I want to see.

Continue reading "Embarrassed by the Riches"

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02:34 AM in Linguistics | Comments (2) | Submit: | Links:

Name That Language

[This is The Tensor coming to you live from LSA 2006.  It's Linguistics News You Can Use!]

On the last leg of my flight today from Phoenix to Albuquerque, I was flying on a Boeing 737.  I noticed the sign above the exit said:


My first thought was, "Oh, right.  It's the southwest U.S., so the signs are also in Spanish."  About three seconds later, it occurred to me that few (if any) Spanish words have a 'k' in them—the pronunciation I was hearing in my head would be spelled queluar, I believe—and even later I was able to dredge up from memory the actual Spanish word for 'exit', salida.  (And I didn't even take Spanish.)  So what's this keluar business, then?

Continue reading "Name That Language"

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02:20 AM in Linguistics | Comments (6) | Submit: | Links:

Tuesday January 3, 2006


In an article in Wired about the arms race between companies that provide pay-per-click ads on the Web and scammers who try to artificially boost the number of clicks, the following annoying phenomenon is mentioned:

Other enterprising scammers manipulate the affiliate system by creating phony blogs - spam blogs, or splogs - that automatically generate content by continually copying bits from other Web sites, mixing in popular keywords, then signing up the resulting mélange as a Google or Yahoo! affiliate. By using software to link themselves repeatedly to well-known real blogs, splogs trick search engines into listing them high on their results list, thus generating traffic, which in turn generates ad clicks.

Note: it's splogs, not zblogs.  Apparently when coining a new blend in English, progressive (and not regressive) voicing assimilation is in effect, producing sp rather than zb from s+b—or, more likely, it's just that zb isn't allowed word-initially in English.  [Update: or, even more probably, the sp comes entirely from the onset of spam, the first element of the blend—but where's the fun in that?]

It's a fact: linguistics is going on all over the world, all of the time.  If only I could figure out a way to harness that fact to produce online ad revenue...  (hat tip: Boing Boing)

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02:34 PM in Linguistics | Comments (4) | Submit: | Links:

NPR Tongue Twisters

Last week on NPR's All Things Considered, there was an interesting story about a New York high school theater program that uses tongue twisters and other language games in their native languages to get students interested and involved.  Here's an exercise for you linguists: follow the link to the story, open up the audio version, fast-forward to about 1:14, and then start transcribing—go ahead, I dare you.

Continue reading "NPR Tongue Twisters"

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02:15 PM in Linguistics | Comments (1) | Submit: | Links:

Monday January 2, 2006

Mountain Surmounted

I don't do New Year's resolutions—I have enough deadlines and unfinished projects already, thanks—but if I did then my first one for this year would definitely have been to do my backed-up school-related filing.  In a fit of industry, I've gone ahead and done it anyway.  I collected the various piles of documents from around the house, put them into one big pile, and started categorizing, stacking, and labeling.  Two and a half hours later, the deed is done.

Continue reading "Mountain Surmounted"

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02:49 AM in Academia , Linguistics | Comments (1) | Submit: | Links:

Saturday December 31, 2005

LSA Gathering?

[Update: Mark Liberman of Language Log has taken on the task of organizing the get-together.  Send him email if you're interested.]

Claire of Anggarrgoon, in a comment on a recent post here, asks:

Is there going to be a bloggers meeting in Albuquerque this year? I don't know who's going apart from you and me. I'm happy to organise something if there's interest, although my regular anggarrgoon site is down (I think someone turned off the server for the holidays...).

I hadn't given it any thought, but it's a good idea.  Who's in?

Continue reading "LSA Gathering?"

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03:05 AM in Academia , Linguistics | Comments (4) | Submit: | Links: