Sunday, September 21, 2008

Hunting Seals Permitted

This is a nice little structural ambiguity:

Watch your wording.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Isn't it?

So the subject of this post is somewhat outside my range of knowledge in a few ways, but I've appreciated this enough to think it's worth posting. Anyone familiar with modern British adolescent slang or with language attitudes concerning them ought to find this rather entertaining. It's a series of skits placing the modern jargon in the mouths of WWII era RAF pilots. Of course, a lot of the humor comes from a "kids these days" chicken little attitude toward language change, but the contrast is so striking that you should be able to chuckle no matter what your personal or professional attitude towards such attitudes is.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

A natural misunderstanding

This is a story relevant to this blog about the effect of common ground, or lack thereof, on phonological processing and context driven disambiguation.

When my grandmother asked me why my brother wasn't at dinner, we had this exchange.

Me: Well, I think he's probably taking it easy at home, kicking back, looking at some blogs.

Grandmom: You're fresh alright!

Me: What? Why?

Grandmom: I guess it's a natural thing for him to do. Don't you look at the blonds?

Monday, April 28, 2008

A renewed account of impulses from a vernal wood and their effect on moral perception

I came across this poem in an epigraph in Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon.

The Tables Turned

UP! up! my Friend, and quit your books;
Or surely you'll grow double:
Up! up! my Friend, and clear your looks;
Why all this toil and trouble?

The sun, above the mountain's head,
A freshening lustre mellow
Through all the long green fields has spread,
His first sweet evening yellow.

Books! 'tis a dull and endless strife:
Come, hear the woodland linnet,
How sweet his music! on my life,
There's more of wisdom in it.

And hark! how blithe the throstle sings!
He, too, is no mean preacher:
Come forth into the light of things,
Let Nature be your teacher.

She has a world of ready wealth,
Our minds and hearts to bless--
Spontaneous wisdom breathed by health,
Truth breathed by cheerfulness.

One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.

Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:--
We murder to dissect.

Enough of Science and of Art;
Close up those barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.

-William Wordsworth

Here's a somewhat related XKCD comic. As a personal note, my own grad school decision was nothing like the character there, but it's illustrative.

The theme is something similar to something I talked about here on Underlinguist. Despite my somewhat defiant tone in that old post, "murdering to dissect" is something I vaguely worry about from time to time.

Not that I've done a survey, but I do get the feeling that occasionally researchers in Linguistics, and other areas, lose focus of what the reality is out there in the world that they're trying to examine. Somehow a propensity for abstraction combined with an obsession with minutia turns the object of study into something nearly unrelated to the reality of experience that must have been the initial inspiration for anyone to set about such an investigation.

Maybe that's the right thing to happen when we try to plumb the workings of the non-conscious mind. I'm not making any claims about the quality or verity of research like this. Here, I'm writing about the personal experience of the researcher with their subject. I always try to keep in mind that any research I do or read has some sort of bearing on some one impulse from a vernal wood.

Monday, April 21, 2008

"Feel the bag"

In an unprecedented second post in one day, this came to me in a forwarded e-mail chain, originated by Wendy Baker of Brigham Young University.

Would-be robbers walk away empty-handed

A frustrating night for some would-be robbers in Salt Lake City, especially for one whose demand for cash went way wrong.

In Utah it may be a difficult deal to tell the difference between the words "fill" and "feel." Last night when a robber presented a bag at the Cafe Treo, he told the server to "fill" it.

"The employee thought the suspect said ‘feel' the bag, so the employee reached over and felt the bag," said Detective Jeff Bedard, spokesman for the Salt Lake City Police Department.

Bedard says the suspect replied, "You've gotta be kidding" and fled the store empty-handed. "Maybe he had a chance rethink his life of crime," Bedard said.

Talk about suspension of contrast when it really matters. There was so much disambiguating evidence in the context too! If you did a corpus search over 5 gagillon words, I guarantee that the string "This is a stick up! Feel the bag!" would be vanishingly rare.

I highly suggest listening to this audio from the story as well. The cop, who is also obviously merged, trying to make the distinction is precious.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Pronking Morphology

This video produced by The Onion is pretty interesting in a number of ways.

First off, it is an excellent example of public discourse on linguistic variation and structure. The representative's response that "maybe it's just something me and my constituents say," is spot on for a dialectal speaker's linguistic insecurity. Rep. Reynold's skepticism over the reality of "pronk" as a communal form because she had been there numerous times is also a common fallacy that even linguists fall into sometimes.

Also to be noted, "intonation," is an important member of the set of words which non-linguists have for describing language. Other important ones are "cadence," "tone," "sing-song," "nasal," "twang," "drawl," along with a great many onomatopoeic vocalizations.

What may be more interesting is everywhere the Onion writers managed to stick "pronk." It takes a number of regular derivational and inflectional morphemes, like pronking, pronked, pronkfully, and pronks (both 3rd person singular -s and plural -s).

"Pronk" also end up in these stranger, portmanteau-like constructions.
  • "pronk-lem" -- problem
  • "pronk-rageous" -- outrageous
  • "pronk-surd" -- absurd
  • "pronk-spect" -- respect

Trying to figure out what makes these well formed is a little tricky. I guess "out," "re," and maybe even "ab," and "prob" could be analyzed as separate morphemes. Still, the syllabification of "pronklem" seems a little off to me. I would have wanted to make it "pronk-blem," which is even worse. Also, the stress in "pronkspect" vs "respect" is off.

What's more, why did they decided to replace these bound pseudo-morphemes with "pronk" instead of the free pseudo-morphemes. The obvious answer is that "pronkrageous" is more recognizable as involving "outrageous" than "out-pronk-ous," which then raises the question of what constitutes the most recognizable segments of a polysyllabic word, which by all accounts is monomorphemic.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

A Man and his Dialect

I've pointed out in conversation before that when a TV show or a movie is set in Philadelphia, the characters either speak in movie standard (or a watered down dialect of the actor) or they do some sort of generic East Coast accent, which is typically r-less. People go to great pains to do a Boston accent in a movie set in Boston (The Departed minus Jack Nicholson is a good example). The same for New York, granted that a lot of the actors are probably from New York originally.

The only time I can remember an attempt at a Philadelphian accent in a movie is in A History of Violence, and they didn't really get it. To be honest, this doesn't seem too bad to me. A Philadelphian accent doesn't have very much recognition generally, so why bother trying to be accurate about a detail that would really just distract and confuse an audience.

Concerning the recognition of a Philadelphian accent, I've recently realized that there is an excellent exemplar out there in the media, who is particularly loud, still very Philadelphian and maybe you've already heard him, thus making him the real topic of this post.

If you ever have trouble imagining what Philadelphians sound like, just think of Chris Matthews. Here is a video of Chris Matthews apologizing for some comments he made about Hillary Clinton. I'll give you a cursory tour of his accent, so that you'll know what to listen for. Really, there's no deep content here other than my own enthusiasm about my own dialect, but it's my blog so I won't be (any more) apologetic.

  • [a]/[ɔ]: Of course, Matthews does not have the low back merger. It's very obvious throughout, so I won't give specific times to watch. The important lexical item is "on" which Matthews pronounces as [ɔn] near 00:19. This is a dead give away, since further south /ɔ/ develops a glide, like [aʊ], and further north they say [an]

  • Dark [l]/ [l] Vocalization: Nearly all word final and pre-consonantal [l]'s are dark throughout the English speaking world, and in many places it is completely vocalizing. Philadelphia is has the same thing going on, but also intervocalically and in initial clusters. Matthews' l's are all very dark, and the most striking token of l-vocalization is at 02:48, where he has absolutely no [l] in Hillary, and also "television" at 01:17.

  • [ar]->[ɔr]: This is a slightly different phenomenon. In Philadelphia, what would usually be realized as [ar] in other dialects is realized as [ɔr]. I believe it;s particularly pronounced in monosyllables, like "Hard" at 01:16 and "heart" at 01:19.

  • Marry~Mary~Merry: Philadelphians pronounce these all distinctly, and while Matthews doesn't line them all up for us at any given point, "embarrassed" at 02:07 clearly has [ær].

  • furry~ferry merger: Oddly enough, Philadelphians merge "ferry" and "furry", as can be heard when Matthews says "America" with [ʌr] at and "very" at 04:28

  • aw raising: As I mentioned here, /aw/ in Philadelphia is produced more like [eɔ], as can be heard in numerous places in Matthews' speech.

  • [ey] Lowering: Word finally, [ey] is lowered in a Southern kind of way, so it's more like [æy], like "day" at 00:14.

  • [ay] Raising: [ay] is raised and backed before voiceless consonants, like in "night" at 00:18.

  • [uw] and [ow]fronting: [uw] and [ow] are front of center for most of Matthews' words, especially "know" at 01:26 and "route" at 02:43. Fronting is blocked by a following [l] though, like in "poll" at 02:28

Another cool thing is that /æ/ is really lax in Matthews' "callous" at 04:12, where I, as a younger fellow, would have it pretty tense before that l. Anyway, it's pretty obvious that I petered out by the end there, and there could still be more for me to pull out of this. The guy's got Philly all over him, and I think that's beautiful.

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