Monday, November 13, 2006

Ginkgo Season, or Why I Hate Fall

Well, I don't really hate fall.

And the only reason I hate fall is that I grew up in Chicago, where fall was cold and rainy and portended a Chicago winter.

And another reason I hate fall is that it means the start of the school year, which for years meant the end of the freedom from bullying that summer provided.

But the main reason I hate fall is that it is when ginkgo trees drop their berries. According to the relevant Wikipedia article:

The seed coat contains butanoic acid and smells like rancid butter (which contains the same chemical) when fallen on the ground.

This is an understatement. The smell is in fact quite complex, and redolent of just about any foul-smelling substance or object you can think of. Perhaps the only worse smell I've smelled was produced by a small cyst on someone's back that, umm, exploded. I'll hide the identity of the afflicted, since I'm married to her. The incomparable David Sedaris describes the smell of a popped cyst thusly:

The stench... was unbearable, and unlike anything I had come across before. It was, I thought, what evil must smell like—not an evil person but the wicked ideas that have made him that way.

The smell of ginkgo berries is better, but not much.

I've been obsessed with plants since the summer before I started high school, and I knew in theory of the smell of ginkgoes, though I hadn't experienced it firsthand. This was, I thought, because ginkgoes are dioecious -- there are separate male and female plants. (A more famous dioecious plant is Cannabis sativa, the females of which being the ones that are of recreational use.) There were ginkgoes aplenty in the Chicago neighborhood I grew up in -- ginkgoes are famous for their ability to thrive in harsh urban environments. Yet it was not until I was in college that I smelled ginkgoes in the fall -- there was a row of them next to the library. Studying became even more of a chore now that it involved running an arboreal gauntlet. Yet each fall an elderly woman, presumably originally from East Asia (she actually wore a conical hat) would brave the stench and gather the berries, which are eaten in many East Asian cuisines.

I was shocked, then, when I lived for a year between college and graduate school in the neighborhood I grew up in and found that in the fall the plentiful ginkgoes, or more accurately half of them, would produce copious and malodorous berries. What had changed? I can only assume that they were planted recently enough that they hadn't yet reached maturity when I was growing up. After all, I can't imagine that they were commonly planted in American cities a generation or two ago.

I quite like my current neighborhood in New York, but it is rank with ginkgoes. There is in fact not a single route I can take to campus that does not involve walking over patches of sidewalk piled with stinking ginkgo berries. Which is my current excuse for not going to the library.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Before the election is over...

... and now that the furor has died down about Macacagate, I'll contribute my belated opinion on the origin of the term "macaca."

Or rather, what I'm sure it isn't. When I first heard about this scandal, I was told that it was a Tunisian French slur against native Tunisians. I bought this explanation. But then it turned out

1) Okay, that term is actually "macaque," pronounced basically the same way as the English word. Furthermore,

2) It was used in the Belgian Congo against Congolese natives (and perhaps North African immigrants to Belgium).

A fair amount of smushy thinking is involved to make the Belgian colonial slur into the likely etymon of "macaca." The steps, as I see them, go like this:

1) So "macaque" is a kind of monkey, the latin name of which is Macaca. And

2) French Tunisia, Belgian Congo -- it's all Francophone colonies in Africa, after all.

But these are both stretches, and are only plausible to someone who really wants to how that George Allen used a known epithet. The problems are obvious - Tunisia and the Congo are nowhere near each other, and though they may speak French in Belgium (at least in parts of it), Belgium ain't France. So how, in short, would a francophone Tunisian crypto-Jew learn a Belgian slur against Congolese natives, and then transmit it to her son as the Latin name of the monkey from which the slur may come?

This bothers me not because I like Allen. In fact it bothers me because I do suspect him of being a barely closeted racist, and I think that this specious etymology 1) weakens the case against Allen with its leaps of logic 2) hides the real story, which I think is far worse.

I take Allen at his word when he says that he "just made up" the term on the spot (you can watch him claim this here). This, to me, does not excuse it -- if anything, it suggests that S. R. Siddarth's South Asian ancestry made him so ridiculous to a crowd of rural Virginians that Allen could make up a vaguely "primitive" sounding name for him, one that wouldn't seem out of place coming out of Johnny Weissmuller's mouth. This, to me, is much more plausible. And much more offensive.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Here's an email I got today, from Leila Riley. I don't know who she is either.

I assure you, Oriane, she is really quite nice; an excellent woman,said Mme.
They are Lieutenant-Colonel Henry and Lieutenant-ColonelPicquart. There; he is a Dreyfusard, theres not the least doubt of it,thought Bloch. Yes, hes a Belgian, bynationality, he went on. We must curb the professional agitatorsand prevent them from raising their heads again. Thats probably whythey didnt elect me again.
Obviously, that todemand a new trial is to force an open door. Ilearned there to value, more than anything, logic.
I have no doubt she is, but I feel no need to assure myself of it.
There; he is a Dreyfusard, theres not the least doubt of it,thought Bloch.
Then she turned, overflowing with a restored vitality, to M.
In any case, if this man Dreyfus is innocent, the Duchess broke in,he hasnt done much to prove it. Yes, hes a Belgian, bynationality, he went on. What can you expect, my dear, its got emon the raw, those fellows; theyre all over it. Picquart might move heaven and earth at thesubsequent hearings; he made a complete fiasco.
Fortunately for yourself and your compatriots you are notlike the author of that absurdity. What idiotic, raving letters hewrites from that island. The truth, indeed, as to all these matters Bloch could notdoubt that M. You expect him tocome out with The Learned Sisters, like Lamartine or Jean-BaptisteRousseau. The Government will acceptall your suggestions.
Besides, we have all been too trusting, too hospitable.
Who had been,in this instance, the inferior from whom M.
He is so busy; he has so much to do, pleaded Mme.
But true beauty is so individual, so novel always, thatone does not recognise it as beauty. I went to see Marie-Aynard a couple of days ago.
Besides, we have all been too trusting, too hospitable.
There; he is a Dreyfusard, theres not the least doubt of it,thought Bloch. As to that, there can be no question whatever.
You know, he went on, why they cant produce the proofs ofDreyfuss guilt.
No, it is probablythat little wench of his that has put him on his high horse.
They are Lieutenant-Colonel Henry and Lieutenant-ColonelPicquart.
Im sureyoure in the same boat, Argencourt. Its all very well, one ofthem having a fondness for my nephew, I cannot carry family feelingquite.
Besides, we have all been too trusting, too hospitable. And not only the laws of imagination, but thoseof speech. You know, he went on, why they cant produce the proofs ofDreyfuss guilt.
It's Proust, dontcha know (sort of). Spam is so surreal that I almost don't mind receiving it. Almost.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Interesting Times

I've been brung down recently by the news, but I'm starting to feel better. In order to help you and me on that road to recovery I'll try and refocus our attention from troubling events onto superficial linguistic phenomena surrounding said troubling events.

1) The Spelling of Hezbollah

At the beginning of this war the press seemed to briefly go in for "Hizbullah," but changed their minds after a week or so.

2) The Pronunciation of Hezbollah

Israeli style - /χizba'la/or American style - /hezb'olə/? The jury's still out. This is a tricky one - where do you put the stress? How do you approximate that difficult Arabic pharyngeal consonant? Which English vowels are the best approximations, and do you base them on the vowels of Standard Arabic, Lebanese Arabic or Persian? Fortunately, one can always fall back on convention. What I've dubbed 'American style' is how I say it. You're free to say it however you want - just make sure you will be understood, and that you're aware that the real choice here is between sounding pretentious and sounding ignorant. Me, I pick ignorant.

3) Katyusha Rockets

The first conversation I had in a language that wasn't English was about the word 'Katyusha' - back in the spring of 1996 I chatted with my French professor after class about how we found the onomatopoetic quality of the word strangely amusing.

Anyways, as Americans we are virtually compelled by the 'sha' at the end of the word to put the stress on the penultimate syllable - foreign seeming and other new words that end in /a/ have to have penultimate stress in English, unless they end in something that looks like a suffix whose stress is farther back, like /ica/. I'm sure someone out there has described this phenomenon, and better than I can.

'Katyusha' is borrowed from Russian; it originated as a nickname for WWII-era soviet rockets, and is in fact a diminutive of the name "Yekaterina." Russian has stress patterns that are counterintuitive to English speakers, and has given us a number of words whose stress we've had to move to make them passable English words -- Stolichnaya, babushka, and others that I can't think of. My fledgling Russian instincts lead me to want to stress 'Katyusha' on the first syllable, but apparently in this case I should actually trust my anglophone instincts -- the Russian nickname Katyusha does indeed have stress on the penultimate syllable.

A further interesting factor is yod-dropping, namely that after certain consonants, including /t/, most Americans cannot have an upglide before a long [u:]. Thus, for instance, Ted Stevens characterizes the internet as a series of /tu:bz/, not /tju:bz/ or /tIubz/. Similarly, the 'tyu' part of 'Katyusha' sometimes comes out 'Katoosha.' In fact,

4) Lebanon

I've started noticing that some Americans are adopting the British pronunciation, wherein the last syllable is fully reduced to /
ə/. I'm not sure why this is happening, and perhaps it is nothing new, but it's new to me.

5) World War 3

I'm sure I'm not the only one to remark on this rather grim nickname for the ongoing conflict, but what I find striking about it is its staying power -- people are still using it, but I thought it would only last a week or so.

This reminds me of another phenomenon that interests me: the naming of ongoing events. I'll write about that later.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Ancient Yiddish Proverb

Once again I will steal an idea from Language log, where there has been talk (or type, I suppose) lately about the provenance of various purported ancient Chinese sayings. If you hadn't figured it out yet, their provenance is, in a word, dubious.

I wasn't surprised. I try to keep tabs on who's blogging about Yiddish and what they're saying. Mostly, I find lists of how to say "I love you" in a jillion languages (usually the Yiddish is garbled but recognizable), as well as "Yiddish sayings." Here's some I've found:
If you ever need a helping hand, you’ll find one at the end of your arm.

If you want to give God a good laugh, tell Him your plans.

If you want your dreams to come true, don’t sleep.

The eyes are the mirror of the soul.

To assume is to be deceived.

There is no heart more whole than a broken heart.

Love is like butter: it goes well with bread.

If you play with a cat, you must not mind her scratch.

When you get scalded from hot food, you blow when you're served even cold.

Some of these may in fact be Yiddish sayings - one is clearly a fanciful amplification of one - but I'm fairly sure that most of these are as kosher as smoked oysters. Which aren't kosher. My point here is not to marvel at the amount of misinformation in the world, a state of affairs I have contributed to plenty myself, but rather to point out that Yiddish, like Chinese, has become a coat hook on which to hang pithy, gnomic sayings. I've always felt that if you truly love a subject matter, you hate to see it fetishized, but part of me is relieved that Yiddish has gone from being thought of as funny to being thought of as wise. And part of me is disappointed.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Gotta Love That Glottal Stop

Some themes I've touched on before that I will attempt to bring together in this post:

1. British pop song pronunciation
2. The astonishing ability of musicians to be huge in England and practically unknown in America
3. Good music you may not know

Here goes. Ahem...

One of the most popular musicians in England right now is Corinne Bailey Rae. In a month or so she will be popular in America too (her album just came out in the states a few weeks ago), though she probably won't have the same meteoric rise that she did in England, where her debut album -- umm -- debuted -- at #1 back in February. The hit single from this album is "Put Your Records On," and it's fantastic. You can hear it here. It's retro but not derivative, has a great melody and smart production. I fear it's popularity may wind up killing it, but at least it won't languish in obscurity.

I'd been led to believe she writes her own music, but a little research suggests she's just the lyricist. Oh well. When will people learn that writing the lyrics to a song doesn't make you a songwriter? I went through the same disappointment with Norah Jones and Macy Gray. In a way it's sad that artists like Mariah Carey and Christina Aguilera don't at least get some critical respect for writing their own material, which, whether you like their music or not, bespeaks of much deeper musicality than merely having a good voice. Female R&B artists seem especially snubbed in this regard.

So on to pronunciation. Bailey Rae is from Leeds in Yorkshire, and like fellow overnight sensation Yorkshiremen (Yorkshirepeople?) Arctic Monkeys, she opts out of employing the generic American-British singing pronunciation I've written about before, using features instead of her own dialect. One of these struck me as odd -- she replaces some [t]s with a glottal stop ("three li?le birds", "go?a love that afro hairdo"), a feature I always thought of as limited to the London area. In fact, this feature is found in Leeds and Manchester as well, at least according to one website. I wonder if this feature is found independently in these cities, or whether it spread as a marker of urban working classness.

Thursday, July 06, 2006


I sure am prolific. At not posting. I've been out of town working on a very exciting project, the details of which I'll share when the project is complete. "And if that don't fetch 'em, I don't know Arkansas."

There's been a bit of contention lately at Language Log over Geoff Pullum's discovery - and condemnation of - what he dubs linguifying: to take that claim and construct from it an entirely different claim that makes reference to the words or other linguistic items used to talk about those things, and then use the latter claim in a context where the former would be appropriate. Most of his examples have involved claims like "the words 'hard' and 'worker' have never been used in the same sentence to describe me" or "'musical' and 'The Shaggs' have never been used in the same sentence." What irks Geoff, and not without reason, is that these claims are usually absurd beyond the degree to which they're meant to be absurd. For instance, if I were to say "'musical' and 'The Shaggs' have never been used in the same sentence" to mean "The Shaggs are not musical" - well, you see where I'm going with this.

Part of Geoff's claim is that this is a new phenomenon, and he asked for examples from before 1987. Mark Liberman took him up on this, but broadened it to include sentences like "'The Shaggs' and 'musical' should not be uttered in the same breath." Of course, this allows him to find much older examples. And this brings me to my topic.

There is a sort of professional translationese when it comes to published translations from Yiddish into English - conventions of how to render common bits of Yiddish into English. One of these involves the now-archaic seeming phrase about uttering x and y in the same phrase. It's used to translate the slippery Yiddish expletive "lehavdl," which literally means 'to distinguish,' and in practice is thrown in when making an unseemly comparison, i.e. between Begin and Rabin, lox and bacon, people and animals, Jewish things and non-Jewish things, etc. I have no problem with this convention, and can't think of a better way to translate 'lehavdl,' really.

But other such Yiddish translationisms grate on my nerves somewhat. For instance, the word 'heymish,' meaning home-like and thus comfortable and familiar, is sometimes rendered 'homely.' Yes, I know 'homely' can mean just that in British English. That doesn't excuse it. These are usually Americans, who ought to know better.

A strange bit of translationese is using the English phrase "neither here nor there" to render the Yiddish phrase "nisht ahin, nisht aher," which literally means "neither thither nor hither" and figuratively means "in between," which is a far cry from the sense of "neither here nor there" that I'm familiar with, that is 'unimportant.'

But my least favorite translationism is 'just so.' Anytime I see this I know that it is an attempt at translating 'glat azoy/stam azoy,' which means 'just 'cause,' not 'just so.' This is a calque of the common slavic phrase that in Russian is 'proste tak.' The Yiddish calque of this was in turn calqued into Israeli Hebrew as 'stam kaḥa.' Funny how that works.

I'm left wondering, then, if this happens with all translation, i.e. that little conventions develop that aren't always accurate. Since Yiddish and English are the only languages I read (and I don't read either language that well) I can't generalize beyond what I've presented.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Caption Contest #56

"We're brain surgeons, not rocket scientists."

Sunday, June 25, 2006

How I Spent My Vacation

Well, now I'm back from a week up in the Rockies, where my wife's family had a reunion. I was able to hear and compare various dialects on this trip, which led me to the following observations:

1. When you've been living in New York, the rhoticity of pretty much anywhere west of the Hudson starts to sound a little weird.

2. I got to compare speakers from the eastern and western extremities of the South/ Southern Midland border (from Oklahoma City and eastern Maryland, respectively). The Oklahoman sounded, for lack of a better word, twangy - I think this is due to a more advanced Southern Vowel Shift on her part. The Marylander, on the other hand, had the classic Mid-Atlantic fronted long /o/.

3. At one point I listened to three Inland Northern speakers talking - they were from southwest Michigan, Northern Illinois, and Chicago. Though I wouldn't swear to it, I believe that if I hadn't known who was from which place, but I had known that there was one speaker from each place, I would have known who was from where. And if you understood that beast of a sentence you deserve a prize.

I figured the best thing to read while traveling would be a book about traveling by a fun writer, so I chose Mark Twain's Innocents Abroad. I'm back home and not done with it yet - it's long and I'm a slow reader (which makes grad school ever so fun), but I like it a lot, though parts of it are either too staid or too over the top, and other parts are fairly offensive by contemporary standards. Oh well - despite his bigoted asides, he clearly believed in the common humanity of, umm, humanity.

I am particularly interested in attempts by writers to relate and locate America and Europe conceptually (this is my area of research), and Twain's portrait of Europe can be summarized thusly:

1. They don't speak English very well over there.
2. They don't use soap, either.
3. The buildings might have been nice once, but now they're old and falling apart.
4. Catholicism is silly and superstitious.
5. European governments are corrupt and oppressive, and have always been so.

I'll reserve judgement on #4 for fear of repeating the Scientology controversy, but I'll say that the rest of these points are all much less true nowadays than they were then.

Overall, though, this is an extremely fun read, and parts of it rank among the funniest things I've read. My favorite part so far is a description if the elaborate ways Twain and his friends amuse themselves by pestering their tour guides. In Rome, for instance, they decide to ask about everything they're shown if Michelangelo designed it, including the forum and an Egyptian obelisk. In Genoa they pretend never to have heard of Christopher Colombus:
"Pleasant name--is--is he dead?"
"Oh, corpo di Baccho!--three hundred year!"
"What did he die of?"
"I do not know!--I can not tell."
"Small-pox, think?"
"I do not know, genteelmen!--I do not know what he die of!"
"Measles, likely?"
"May be--may be--I do not know--I think he die of somethings."
This "is--is he dead?" routine is so good that they repeat it when shown a mummy, and then with various statues. It is only with great restraint that they keep from doing it in the catacombs.

I'm reading a facsimile edition, which has some quirky spelling that I like: 'staid' instead of 'stayed,' for instance. I also learned from this book that the expression "tricked out" is at least a hundred years older than I would have guessed.

A footnote about the name Mark Twain. Or rather, about the pen-name of the Yiddish Mark Twain, Sholem Aleichem. There is a shibboleth of sorts in Yiddish studies, whereby those who refer to Sholem Aleichem as Aleichem are cast down as dilletantes. (My field is a minefield of such shibboleths.) The explanation is this: 'Sholem aleichem' is a phrase - a formal greeting. Thus it doesn't make sense to refer to him as 'Aleichem.'

Okay, fine. But the same could be said for Mark Twain. Indeed, both pen-names are similar in that they are two-word phrases, the first word of which is also a common first name. Sholem Aleichem's real first name was in fact Sholem. If the appeal to logic that is purported to explain why you shouldn't call Sholem Aleichem 'Aleichem' is valid, then it should apply equally to Twain -- which it doesn't.

I'm generally dubious about pre- and proscriptions in language that are based in logic. Does this mean that I think Yiddish scholars should start calling Sholem Aleichem 'Aleichem?' No - you can't call him this, for the simple reason that he isn't called that. It's just a convention, and those who call him 'Aleichem' reveal their ignorance of this convention, and thus their status as outsiders.

Friday, June 16, 2006


Balashon has an interesting post about the various terms used historically in Hebrew for 'bathroom'. The pattern he traces is of cyclical euphemization; every word for 'bathroom' eventually became taboo and a euphemism was substituted, which eventually became a neutral term, and then a vulgar one, and wound up being replaced.

English is equally squeamish about words for this - we discarded the term 'toilet' in the sense of bathroom, even though 'toilet' was originally a euphemism itself, because the term became associated with the crucial apparatus in the room rather than the room itself. In my Midwestern dialect of English, moreover, even 'bathroom' is considered slightly vulgar, and in polite company 'washroom' is usually substituted (but not 'restroom,' which can only refer to a public facility - a washroom can be in someone's house). My hunch is that 'bathroom' became taboo when the euphemism 'going to the bathroom' became detached from the room itself - my father has an example sentence in his first book about a dog going to the bathroom in the kitchen. Ah, Generative Semantics - if only all scholarship was so uninhibited!

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Carmen et error

Since so many folks have written to me asking what I think of the most recent re-design of the $10 bill, I'll indulge them by answering with a quotation from Catullus: odi et amo (carmen LXXXV)- I love it and I hate it.

I love it mostly because I think it looks spiffy. If you haven't seen it, here's what it looks like:

It looks like money, right? In fact, it looks more like money than the 2000 redesign did. But, more importantly, now when my European friends (and I include Canadians in this category) mention in their litany of examples of American barbarity the fact that all our bills (or "notes," as they call them) are the same color, I can now proudly respond, "Nuh-uh!"

What, then, could my objection possibly be? Well, I'll tell you. I've always loved $10 bills because they used to have some funky looking old cars on the back:

And here's a detail of the most prominent car:

Though many claim that this is a Ford Model T, it isn't; in fact, it isn't any real car, but rather a succesful attempt to make a generic-looking late-twenties car. After all, the Treasury Department isn't in the business of endorsing car companies.

I liked this car a lot, because it must have seemed bold and contemporary-looking in 1929 when it was designed. Then, over the years, it took on a quaint charm, until the 2000 redesign did away with it. I tried to protest by boycotting money, but then I got hungry. When I saw the new redesign a few months ago (wasn't expecting that!) I first thought I accidentally got foreign currency. Then I quickly realized it had been redesigned, and checked the reverse to see if my car was back. It wasn't, damnit.

Here are some unrelated thoughts I had over the past week, none of which developed into something post-worthy:

1. The new Regina Spektor album, "Begin to Hope," which came out this week, is fantastic. Go buy it and find out for yourself. It's a little less consistent than her last album, "Soviet Kitsch," but although the lows are lower, the highs are higher. The production is a bit weird, with heavy use of silly-sounding synthesized strings. This is surprising, since the producer, David Kahne, produced the best albums by Fishbone, the band I was obsessed with in high school. Indeed, I think his production was key to their sound; their later albums, which he didn't produce, are markedly inferior.

2. After years of trying and failing, I'm starting to like Leonard Cohen. Since I'be been thinking so much about singing pronunciation lately, I noticed two things:
a) In the chorus of "So Long, Marianne," he rhymes 'Marianne' and 'began' with 'again.' In my American pronunciation, this is a not too jarring half-rhyme. However, as a Canadian, he naturally pronounces 'again' to rhyme with 'gain.' You can hear him struggling not to pronounce it this way, but when the word crops up in the verse he pronounces it the Canadian way.
b) In "One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong" he pronounces the word "prescription" as "perscription," which is, incidentally, how I pronounce it. Both these examples are interesting to me because I'm working on a theory that, in contrast to the standardized mid-Atlantic popular singing pronunciation scheme I've been posting about, cerebral folk-rockers in the mid sixties opted for a pronunciation scheme that more closely resembled generic Northern colloquial speech. More on this later, maybe.

3. After the fascinating exchange in the comments section of my last post, I'm tempted first of all to post less often and see what other interesting things crop up, and I'm inspired once again to link to this cute flash animation that involves intrusive intrusive /r/ in an otherwise decent imitation of a Chicago-like dialect. For the record, if Homestar Runner winds up taking over your life, don't say I didn't warn you.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Intrusive intrusive /r/

In the summertime we'd drive my grandfather from Hallandale, Florida to Chicago, and as we'd pass through Tennessee he'd invariably remark, "Chattanooger. That's how the Bostonians say it." They don't, but he's certainly not the only one who thinks they do. The actual phenomenon underlying this belief is known technically as 'intrusive /r/.' When words ending in certain vowels (non-high ones) are followed by words beginning with vowels, people with this feature insert an /r/. So a Bostonian wouldn't just call Chattanooga 'Chattanooger,' but he or she certainly might say "Chattanoog[er] is in Tennessee." Or, to draw an example from my favorite corpus - Beatles lyrics - John Lennon sings "I saw[r] a film today, oh boy."

Two questions arise: who does this, and why? In answering one we will answer the other.

First off, as you undoubtedly know, some dialects of English are non-rhotic - that is, they drop the /r/ sound when it occurs after vowels - but not before them. A consequence of this is that the dropped /r/s come back when they are immediately before a word starting with a vowel. Thus in "Let It Be" Paul McCartney sings "In my hour of da(r)kness" and "There is still a light that shines on me." So intrusive /r/ happens when a word sounds like it has a dropped /r/ at the end but doesn't really, and the phantom /r/ appears precisely where a dropped /r/ would reappear, before a vowel.

Do all English speakers who drop /r/s have intrusive /r/? In a word, no. The key phrase in the paragraph above is "when a word sounds like it has a dropped /r/ at the end but doesn't. See, in some /r/ dropping dialects (such as African American, or the dwindling /r/ dropping white Southern dialects) the dropped /r/ alters the preceding vowel. In these dialects, then, 'manna' and 'manner' don't sound the same, so the confusion that gives rise to intrusive /r/ isn't present, and as a result there is no intrusive /r/.

All this is very complicated, and it's no wonder, then, that my grandfather had trouble mimicking it. Though Peter Trudgill's examples of people misusing intrusive /r/ in British pop songs may be problematic, the phenomenon, which I will dub 'intrusive intrusive /r/' is a very real one, and the point Trudgill is trying to make - namely, that people aren't as good as they think they are at miimcking other dialects - is entirely valid.

In the comments to my last post the question arose why a British professer would pronounce the name Echa as 'Eker.' After all, don't non-rhotic Brits have intrusive /r/? Shouldn't he therefore know how to use it. I would suggest two possible explanations:

1. He was mocking rhotic American dialects, but misanalyzing them and overgeneralizing. More likely, though, is the explanation suggested by the fact that

2. In British English intrusive /r/ is stigmatized, and this professor spoke a fairly posh dialect. I suspect, then, that intrusive /r/ is as foreign to him as was to my grandfather, and he too misanalyzed the phenomenon, and, attempting to employ it mockingly, misused it.

On an unrelated note, I want to acknowledge the sad fact that Billy Preston died on Monday. Honor his memory by reading my two posts about him.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Trudgill on Pop Song Pronunciation

When I last wrote about pronunciation in pop music, Ben Zimmer directed me to Peter Trudgill's article on the subject. After months of not reading this article... well, I read it. It's very good. In fact, the book I found it in, his On Dialect, is very good, and surprisingly accessible for a layman like me, and it will surely be fodder for a number of posts.

Trudgill's thesis is twofold: first, that over the course of the sixties British groups went from emulating "American" pronunciation - not dropping post-vocalic /r/s, monophthongizing /aj/ to /a:/, frequently using /ae/- to not doing so. Secondly, he shows that the advent of punk brought an increase in markedly British, and particularly working-class Cockney, features.

In the broad outlines I agree with Trudgill. His data is pretty remarkable - he has a graph showing the Beatles' use of postvocalic /r/ steadily declining throughout their careers. Remember, though, that Americans themselves tend not to use postvocalic /r/ when they sing (outside of country music). My feeling is that the de-Americanization of British singing pronunciation in the sixties can be described as the emergence of a sort of trans-Atlantic standard singing pronunciation, or perhaps a growing awareness on the part of British singers that if they wanted to sing like Americans, then they shouldn't out-American Americans by using post-vocalic /r/s.

The main quibble I have with this article has to do with Trudgill's assertion (which figures throughout the book) that in an attempt to Americanize their pronunciation British singers hyper-corrected their rhotacization, inserting "intrusive" /r/s even where those with intrusive /r/s don't really have them. That this is the case is undoubtedly, umm... the case. But two of the three examples he provides are problematic. The first is the Beatles' version of the old chestnut "Till There Was You" on their second album, "With The Beatles" (1963). In their version, Paul McCartney sings "There were birds in the sky/ but I never sawr them winging." Trudgill thinks that this proves that McCartney wanted to sound American but misanalyzed when it is us crazy Americans have /r/s. I think that the underlying point is entirely plausible, but I'm sure in this instance that McCartney was just trying to be goofy and self-mocking so that no one could tease him for singing a moldy oldie like "Till There Was You."

Another example Trudgill provides is from the Kinks 1966 song "Sunny Afternoon," where Londoner Ray Davies sings "My girlfriend's run off with my car/ and gone back to her mar and par." Except he doesn't. I listened to the key moment repeatedly and heard neither "mar"(which would be a typical and authentic example of "intrusive" /r/) nor "par", which is par-ticularly striking because he does sing "car" with a pronounced /r/. Were he to sing "par," it would strike me as a clever and funny sort of stretch of a rhyme, not a misanalysis of American rhoticity.

Trudgill's third example, Cliff Richard's 1961 "Bachelor Boy," is a solid and incontrovertible example; "a bachelor" becomes something that is so rhotacized that to me sounds like "her bachelor" or "your bachelor." Haven't heard of Cliff Richard? I hadn't either, but then in one of those weird coincidences that either supports or disproves my belief in the fundamental absurdity of the universe, my favorite music journalist, Sasha Frere-Jones, mentioned him in an article in this week's New Yorker. In this article, an intriguing analysis of the role of British pop music in America, Frere-Jones claims that British musicians who get famous here tend to "lack identifiably English accents." This may be true, but the lack of accent is largely a symmetric one.

As for Cliff Richards, Frere-Jones calls him "England's answer to Elvis Presley." That I'd never heard of him underscores the surprising insularity of American pop music, which is sort of the point of his article. Frere-Jones has a fascinating, albeit perplexing blog that is definitely worth checking out.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Gheuf & Lowth

I've been uninspired lately, so instead of making a feeble attempt to be clever or interesting, I'll direct you to something that is:

In a series of posts, Gheuf explores the writings of Bishop Lowth and in the process debunks the myths that Lowth a) invented the prescriptivist claptrap about split infinitives and stranded prepositions and such, and b) that he did so (which he didn't) out of a perverse or ignorant desire to make English conform to the rules of Latin grammar. It's interesting stuff, but don't take my word for it -- read it for yourself.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

A Native South Sider

If I were to tell you there was a flower that has only ever been seen growing on the South Side of Chicago, would you believe me?

It's true. The plant, Thismia americana, is a tiny little thing, about a quarter of an inch tall, and it looks like this:

It blooms in late summer in the wet prairies on the south shore of Lake Calumet. Or at least it used to - the only place where it was seen is now the site of a Ford Plant, and Thismia americana hasn't been seen since 1916.

Just about everything about this plant is remarkable. It was discovered in 1912 by Norma Pfeiffer, a graduate student in botany at the University of Chicago, who went on to become the University's youngest PhD (or so I read - I can't vouch for factuality of that claim, and am slightly suspicious of it). The plant itself is parasitic, lacks chlorophyll, and is a member of a plant family that is closely related to orchids and is generally tropical.

In the years since its disappearance Thismia americana has become the holy grail of Chicago-area botany. For a while there were annual searches for it in the remaining areas of similar habitat in the marshy lowlands south of Lake Michigan along the Illinois-Indiana boundary. I took part in one such search; in high school I was a pretty active botanist. Needless to say, the plant remains unrediscovered.

I hope, of course, that Thismia still exists and gets rediscovered, but I further hope that when it does, it will be found within city limits on the South Side.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

I Still Don't Get It

In my last substantive post I pondered the various uses of 'have got'/'have gotten', and mentioned that, in general, 'have gotten' is standard only in North America, and then only for certain meanings. I failed to mention, however, that a few American editors and style guides call for always replacing 'gotten' with 'got', among them the New Yorker. I have been a devoted New Yorker reader since college, but I still haven't gotten used to this feature, or got used to it. For instance, in this weeks issue Rita Katz, a self-employed spy (really - read the article) is quoted as saying
I would never have got interested in the politics of this part of the world if it weren’t for [my father's] execution

I am certain that she must have said 'gotten', which the editors automatically changed to 'got.' Something about the resulting sentence, however, doesn't ring true, though I'm not sure why this example is so much more jarring for me than all the other times the New Yorker uses 'have got' in a distinctly un-American way. So I'll perform the Positive Anymore signature move of making up a fact based on nothing more than my faulty intuition.

I think that there is something distinctly American about the syntax Katz (who, incidentally, is Iraqi born and raised in Israel) employs, which is incompatible with 'have got' in the sense of 'have become.' I don't know precisely what is distinctly American, and I'm eager as always to be contradicted, disproven, insulted... well, maybe not insulted.

In my last post on this topic I mentioned that some Americans use past participles for the simple past with some verbs and others use the simple past as a past participle with some verbs. I'll post more on this later, but I bring it up now because I want to go out on a limb and say that even those Americans who use the simple past as a past participle would not use 'have got' to mean 'have become.'

Who has two thumbs and no data to support his claims? (gesturing at self with thumbs) This guy.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Caption Contest #52

"If it wasn't for the park I wouldn't be able to stand living in Manhattan."

Friday, May 19, 2006

I Don't Get It

I've been thinking a lot lately about the verb 'to get,' and I have a few disjointed thoughts about it that I'll try to string together.

The first fact I'll mention is a fairly well-known one, namely that the in Standard North American English the past participle of 'to get' is 'gotten,' whereas in Standard English of Everywhere Else (SEEE -- you know, for Anglophone areas on islands of the coast of Europe, and various areas in the Southern Hemisphere, plus a few other scattered places) the past participle is "got," as in "Things have got worse," which, to American ears, or at least to the ears on the sides of my American head, this sounds slightly uneducated, since there is a widespread but stigmatized tendency to use the participle for the simple past for some verbs, and the simple past for the participle for other verbs, which is how my brain interprets such sentences. But wait - don't Americans sometimes use 'got' as a participle? Indeed we do:

1. I've got a small apartment.
2. I've got to get a bigger apartment.

In short, for different meanings of the word 'get', Americans, and I suppose all Anglophones who say 'gotten', use different past participles. Thus:

have gotten: 1. To have received. 2. To have become.
have got: 1. To own. 2. To need to.

This is weird, no? Firstly, this is sort of a weird conglomeration of meanings, but heck, most languages I've seen sometimes lump weird meanings together. But weirder still, as you may have noticed, is that those instances where Americans do use 'got' as a participle are really only past participles in form, not meaning. Really, they are just sort of a unique periphrastic construction of which, as far as I can tell, there are no other examples. When else do we use have + participle and not mean some sort of past tense thing?

So while we're talking about this second case, where 'got' is a pseudo-participle, and where those who otherwise say "have gotten" say "have got," I'll mention a weird consequence of this not being a true past participle.

In most kinds of English you can't really drop the auxiliary 'have' in the so-called 'perfect' tense. This is because so often the form of the pp. and of the simple past are identical, so the only way to distinguish them is with the 'have.' But think about 'got' in the sense of 'to have.' Myself, I could certainly say "I got a small apartment,' at least in non-formal situations, although I speak fairly colloquially, more colloquially than you would maybe expect from a grad student. But think about 'got' meaning 'to have to': "I gotta get a bigger apartment'. Though this is markedly colloquial, I don't think I would be surprised to hear this sentence from any American speaker. So in the first instance, the 'have' can be dropped by fairly colloquial speakers, whereas in the second instance it is normally dropped. It should be noted, though, that it is only 'have' that can be dropped, not 'has.' "He gotta get a bigger apartment" is permissible only in dialects with copula deletion, i.e. African American Vernacular. I suspect, though, that down the road this will become standard, andwhen it does a new modal verb 'got' will be born, joining 'must', its non third-person singular inflecting, no infintive having, erstwhile past tense kin.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Low Back Pt. 2

Oregonian: So I was just talking to Dawn...
Chicagoan: Wait -- who's Don?

The Oregonian was my long-suffering wife, and the Chicagoan was her long-suffering supervisor. Incidentally, this selfsame supervisor has already made an appearance on these very pages as the native of Wheaton (an outer suburb of Chicago) who frequently uses positive anymore in her speech. The other day I remarked to her that her use of this construction was, well, remarkable, and she told me that it is actually an affectation for her -- she heard someone use positive anymore at some point in her childhood (she forgets who and when), was impressed by it, and decided to adopt it.

How 'bout that?

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Caption Contest #51

"And how many of these 'Lost Boys' did you see there?"

Saturday, May 13, 2006

New Names For The Cot/Caught Merger

So Argotnaut gave over Frinkenstein's suggestion "hottie/haughty." This got me thinking about other minimal pairs collapsed by the low-back merger. Soon I had a large and unwieldy list, so I decided to offer some of the pairs I like the most, since I think we all agree that the name "cot/caught" must go. In my opinion none are as good as hottie/haughty, but they are still worth listing, if only to give me something amusing to post about. Here they are:


I hesitated before adding the last one, just because I fear that as a result people will get to this blog by searching for... well, something they won't find here. Speaking of strange things people reach this blog searching for, I've had three (I think) visitors who googled 'should I grow a beard' - a weird thing to google, and a weirder thing for me to be on the first page of results for, IMHO. AFAIK. ROFL? pWn3d? I'll stop now.

Speaking of caulk, I spent a summer working for the physical plant of my college in Portland, Oregon, during which time I was struck by how funny my co-workers found the word "caulk," which seemed juvenile to me, but now I realize that if I had the low-back merger like they did I would have found it funny too. Not that it isn't juvenile.

So my northwesterner wife has the lager/logger merger - that seems like an appropriate way to describe it in the Pacific Northwest - but I've found that it's only partial. I realized, for instance that she says "awesome" the way I do, not /ah/some, as I expected, even though she insists she 'can't say' "haughty" the way I do. So I asked her about this, and she says that she's 'saying the w,' which makes sense. I tried out cod/cawed on her, but it was merged, though, interestingly enough, 'caw' came out //. Is it possible that there is a historical explanation for this? I don't know enough to guess, though usually that doesn't stop me.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Historic Preservation

When I first got interested in architecture I was something of an extremist when it came to preservation; any old structure that got demolished broke my heart. I think that this was due to the fact that I lived in Portland, Oregon, a city that, like many cities in the west, has a relatively small number of old structures. I remember when an unremarkable late nineteenth century brick warehouse across the street from my apartment was demolished how I felt like it was almost a criminal act. Over the years I've gotten less rabid, but it still breaks my heart to read stories like this one about the demolition of historic homes in Kenilworth, Illinois.

Kenilworth contains the greatest concentration of houses by George Maher, the most distinctive of the architects associated with the Prairie School. Maher's signature was what he called "motif-rhythm" - using simple geometric shapes, usually segmental arches and poppies, to create thematic unity in a building. Here are some examples of his work:

Armchair, c. 1912

The Rath House, 1907

Schultz House, 1907
Winnetka IL

My childhood home was in fact a Maher-designed apartment building from 1908, and those segmental arches sure look homey to me. That chair would have looked great in our apartment, but, like with most Prairie School buildings, the interior was gutted in the 1950s, and all the custom furniture and most of the decoration (stained glass, stenciling, mosaic fireplace) vanished.

That was depressing. If you need something to cheer you up, read this story about a tortoise and a hippo who are friends.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Stupifany #2

The title and refrain of Madonna's 1986 hit "Papa Don't Preach" is in the imperative mood, not the indicative. That is, "Papa, don't preach." And I never realized that until this morning.

(What's a stupifany?)

Friday, May 05, 2006

Sterling Kosher Salt

The other day Ben Zimmer hipped me to the Yiddish Radio Project, which I knew about from the NPR series four years ago. Back then I was, to be frank, underwhelmed by the series, which I felt dwelt (!) too long on English language materials. What little Yiddish they did play they talked over. In any case, I'm very glad Ben drew my attention to the Yiddish Radio Project again, because in the interim they've assembled quite a collection of online streaming Yiddish audio, much of it with simultaneous scrolling English translations, which aren't error-free, but are idiomatic and often clever.

My favorite thing I've found so far is this series of 'man-on-the-street' interviews (most of the interviewees are actually women, and they're inside a store). What I really love hearing, though, is authentic American Yiddish, something I've read about a lot, and even read a lot of, but only heard from very elderly informants. This was the Yiddish that developed in America during and after the 'great migration', that is, 1881-1924. It was spoken predominantly by immigrants, though many of the children of immigrants were capable of understanding it, and sometimes speaking it, though they were invariably more comfortable with English. Incidentally, this is a common pattern with immigrant languages in America, though with Yiddish people ascribe this trend to a particular overeagerness on the part of American Jews to assimilate.

American Yiddish is notable for three things: 1) promiscuity with features from different dialects, 2) 'Daytshmerish,' or Germanizing tendencies, and 3) significant borrowing from English. One could condemn each of these features (many do) but I see them as perfectly natural developments. All three features are readily discernable in the clip above, particularly the first - it is sometimes difficult to identify what is the underlying dialect of each speaker, since each speaker exhibits features from a variety of dialects.

I would have thought of this as strange - these are all European-born Yiddish speakers who, prior to immigration, undoubtedly spoke the undiluted dialect of their hometown, so why should they suddenly pick up features from the various dialects they encountered in America?

As I said, I would have thought of this as strange, were it not that a recent experience makes me think that this is in fact perfectly natural. My brother in law has been living in New Zealand for a few years now, and suddenly has picked up a New Zealand accent. Again, I would have thought of this as an affectation, but when he heard a recording of himself, he was shocked.

So why is it, then, that after ten years of not living in Chicago people can still instantly guess where I'm from?

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Miracle Drug

There's a medecine on the market for rheumatoid arthritis called Humira. According to the leaflet, it is pronounced "hu-mare-ah." How can the letter 'i' make the sound /e/? This stumped me for a while (and it seems I was not the only stumped one). The other day, though, I came up with a possible explanation for this counterintuituve pronunciation, an explanation of which I am fond, though it raises its own problem.

It occurred to me that this is a pun on the word "miracle," which it further occurred to me I pronounce "mare-acle." Finally it occurred to me to wonder why I pronounce this word this way. I'm still wondering, but now I suspect I'm not the only one who does so, despite what my wife says. A bit of online research turned up the following inconclusive maps from Bert Vaux's survey. I'm not even sure if any of the options apply to me; the closest is /ɛ/, but because of tense-lax mergers I can't have that vowel before an /r/.

Thus the wordplay behind the
"hu-mare-ah" is obscured by the limited occurrence of the correspondind pronunciation of 'miracle.' The implication that Humira is a miracle drug may be hyperbolic, but it belongs to a new class of immunological drugs that are revolutionizing the treatment of autoimmune diseases.

Speaking of autoimmune diseases, in an article in last week's New Yorker Ben McGrath described the decrepitude of an elderly mob turncoat thusly:
He suffered his second minor stroke and third detached retina. He also endured high blood pressure, poor hearing, arthritis, prostate cancer, and Raynaud's disease.
In case you are not familiar with this last disease (which is an autoimmune disease), here is how Wikipedia describes it:
  1. When exposed to cold temperatures, the oxygen supply to the fingertips, toes, and earlobes of Raynaud's disease patients are reduced and the skin color turn pale or white (called pallor) and become cold and numb.
  2. When the oxygen supply is depleted, the skin colour turns blue (called cyanosis).
  3. These events are episodic and when the episode subsides, or the area is warmed, blood returns to the area and the skin colour turns red (rubor) and then back to normal, often accompanied by swelling and tingling. These symptoms are thought to be due to reactive hyperemias of the areas deprived of blood flow.

All three colour changes are present in classic Raynaud's disease. However, some patients do not see all of the colour changes in all outbreaks of this condition.

Poor guy -- when it's cold his fingers turn blue.

In the interest of disclosure I must disclose that I have Raynaud's disease, and only hope that some day a treatment may be found, not for my sake, but for my children's, as this is a genetic condition, and both I and my wife suffer from this truly debilitating disease.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Been A While

I know, I know. Was I too busy or too lazy? (Hint: both)

Meanwhile, I made a final exam for my students, changed my dissertation topic somewhat, and spent as much time as possible out in the spring weather. Also, there was a fire in my building yesterday, which was exciting, except for the people whose apartments were destroyed. Our apartment is fine; it just smells like smoke. I feel bad feeling grateful or lucky when other people weren't so lucky, but I can't help it.

In the interim -- hold that thought -- I just made up a new fake prescriptivist rule:

*It is wrong to say 'in the interim' since 'interim' means 'inside' in Latin [it doesn't]. It is redundant to say 'in the inside.'

Not bad, eh? It's based on a flawed etymology and bad logic, and it sounds plausibly intimidating. Even better, Shakespeare uses the forbidden phrase twice (Othello V, ii and Much Ado II, i). Man, if this rule finds itself in the wrong hands it might one day be used to make natuve English speakers feel like they don't really know their own language.

Where was I? Right - "in the interim."

In the interim I have thought about several topics, none of which seemed to merit a full post. So instead I will make this a kitchen sink post of sorts (what's a sink post?) with brief thoughts on each topic.

1. In a radio piece I heard about the recent death of the Satmarer Rebbe, an interviewee commented on what one of the speakers at the funeral was, as he put it, "giving over." This is a calque of the Yiddish verb ibergebn, 'to communicate'. I've heard this Jewish English verb a number of times, and I was delighted that it found its way onto NPR. The use of English is widespread among contemporary Yiddish-speaking communities (i.e. Hasidim), suggesting to some that English may come to replace Yiddish. This may prove to be true, but the English that replaces Yiddish will not be the English spoken by non-Hasidim. I think that there will be countless instances of calquing, especially of complemented verbs, since English and Yiddish complemented verbs are so deceptively similar. This will replicate the phenomenon by which Yiddish used Germanic verbs and adverbial prefixes to produce calques of Slavic prefixed verbs.

2. Amidst all the flap about Katie Holmes and Tome Cruise's new baby's name, Suri, there were various hints and allegations of a Yiddish connection, which in fact does exist, though it is coincidental. Languagehat basically gets it right, amplifying on Ben Zimmer's discussion of the name, saying
I can only add that Suri looks to me like a dialect variant of the name Sarah, which I believe is Sore in standard Yiddish.
But what dialect? There is an isogloss that runs roughly along the Ukraine/Belarus border, north of which the name is Sore and south of which it is Sure, but who says 'Suri'? The answer? Americans and Israelis, who have adopted the English and Israeli Hebrew custom of making diminutive forms of names ending in /i/. Among Hasidim, in fact (most of whom speak a southern dialect of Yiddish, this new diminutive ending has almost entirely replaced the older Yiddish diminutive suffix /-l/ with names. Thus Suri joins a large group of Suris in Brooklyn and Bnei Brak. I find this funny.

3. What I don't find funny is all the Scientology bashing that this birth has generated. I grew up hostile to religion, but, though I myself remain staunchly irreligious, I have grown hostile to hostility towards religion. Why? Well, for one, certain religions, chiefly Scientology and Mormonism, are often condemned for being secretive and eerily ritualistic, and there are intimations of conspiracy fueled by lists of the prominent individuals and companies associated with these religions. These are the same charges that, when leveled at Judaism, are rightly considered offensive. So why should Mormonism and Scientology, and Catholicism for that matter, be any different? I'm just sayin'.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

What Are You Having?

Quick, answer the following question:

When you ask someone you're eating with in a restaurant what they're having, this is

a) out of idle curiosity
b) in order to avoid the embarrassment of ordering the same thing

I would answer b), and until a few months ago I would have thought of this as common sense. Apparently, though, it isn't. What brought about this realization was a recent incident in a restaurant with a group of people who all decided to order the same thing. Someone at the table said to me, "Hey, Positive, I bet you're dying of embarrassment right now." Which I was. Everyone wondered both how she knew, and why I would be embarrassed, while I wondered why they had no manners. You see, the person who knew I was embarrassed was a fellow Chicagoan, and was equally embarrassed, but had previously realized that this was a little-known instance of regionalism. I was skeptical, but some casual asking around has basically confirmed this, that Chicagoans find it embarrassing to order the same thing as someone else at a restaurant, whereas no one else cares.

My interest in American dialects stems from a general interest in regionalism and cultural diversity. I have a theory that is too vague to be testable (the best kind) that accounts for why people assume that American culture is becoming homogenized, while linguists are observing dialect divergence. My theory is that localisms are being subsumed by broader regionalims, which are diverging. The fact that I could have a strong cultural taboo, one that I had never heard articulated, moreover, that the people I was eating with (among them my wife) were ignorant of shows that such cultural differences are at least plausible. If this were really to conform to my theory, then this taboo must be more widespread than just Chicago. Have you encountered this taboo? Do you yourself have it? Is it the craziest thing you've ever heard of?

What strikes me is that even though most non-Chicagoans I've asked don't know about this taboo, everyone is familiar with the phenomenon of asking, "What are you having?"

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Caption Contest #47

"Oh, don't worry about that. He's a consultant."

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

From Flaps to Maps

Both Languagehat and Ben Zimmer at Language Log have posted recently about the new improvements made to the MLA Language Map. Specifically, a feature was added so that languages could be mapped by percentage of speakers, rather than by number of speakers, which they had previously called "density." This is an indeed an improvement, which transforms this website from useless to marginally useful. I'll reveal now what I should have revealed when people were first posting about the MLA Language Map. These maps are based on census data, right? So why not go directly to the US Census Bureau's own online mapping tool? If you like maps as much as I do (and I hope you don't), you will be able to waste countless hours making endless maps. It's harder to use than the MLA's interface, but it's infinitely more manipulable. You can select from a wide range of geographic subdivisions, pick your own data classes (and even the number of them), and you can map a wide variety of data: age, race, income, even reported ethnicity (the choices there are almost exclusively European, unfortunately). Oddly, though, the only language-related data they let you map is "Percent of Persons 5 Years and Over Who Speak a Language Other Than English at Home," and "Percent of Persons 5+ Years Who Speak Other Than English at Home & Speak English Less Than 'Very Well.'" Still, though, you can see amazing things, like for instance how strikingly segregated Chicago's South Side is:

+50% African-American

+50% Hispanic

+50% White

Isn't that amazing? In a city roughly evenly divided between these three groups, just about every inch of the city is overwhelmingly dominated by one group, usually to the exclusion of the other groups. Look at how each area is precisely delineated. These are lines that any South Sider knows instinctively and thinks of almost like a physical boundaries.

Anyways, go play around on the Census Bureau's website, and you'll never be satisfied with the MLA's mapping tools again, even if they do monopolize mappable language data.

Monday, April 17, 2006

De Lee, Ted

I've been thinking a lot (too much) lately about /t/s in English. I never really thought about them before, so I guess this I was overdue. Really, though, I never knew how much there was to know! I'd heard about flapping, but didn't know what all the, umm, fuss... was about. What fascinates me most though is how most Americans are completely unaware of flapping, that is, that the 't' sound before unstressed vowels really doesn't sound much like a /t/ at all, at least when uttered (or uddered) by Americans. And not just 't's, but 'd's as well. That's why 'uttered' and 'uddered' sound the same. Here are three anecdotes about this.

1) In an acting class my freshman year of high school, the teacher admonished us for "not pronouncing our 't's - there's a 't' in 'battle' - I need to hear it." So we had to say 'ba-tel' to get her off our collective case. Nevermind that that's not how you say that word in American English.

2) At a conference recently a handout for a talk included some transcribed speech, in which the word 'later' was followed by "(lader)" seemingly chastising the informant for flapping her 't's.

3) The recorded interface in my voicemail system, which generally sounds chatty and colloquial, says "This message has been De Lee, Ted," which always makes me want to say, 'My name isn't Ted.'

Frankly, I don't really care that people don't know about flapping 't's. Why should they? But it's interesting that this particular sound gets attention where others don't; I can't imagine an acting teacher telling actors to devoice the 's' in 'rose,' for instance.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Je ne sais quoi

A truism about Yiddish is that it is what they call in German a Schmelzsprache - a fusion language. Hell, google "Schmelzsprache" and see what you get. Like many truism, this one ain't true. Or rather, the facts underlying it rather undermine than underlie. First of all, the borrowed, non-Germanic vocabulary is in fact rather limited, and only stands out prominently when Yiddish is compared to German. Secondly, as a former professor of mine pointed out, vocabulary from different "component" languages tends to follow different morphological patterns: there are distinctly Hebraic plurals reserved for nouns of Hebrew origin, and other plurals found only with Germanic nouns. There are furthermore verbal conjugations and adjectival declensions that are limited to Slavic vocabulary. The exceptions to these tendencies are striking precisely because they are exceptional. In short, Yiddish is actually like most languages, in that it has borrowed words from other languages. It is only due to a Germanicist bias that Yiddish seems to be uniquely 'mixed,' compared to 'pure' German.

English, on the other hand, is pretty darn mixed by any standard, particularly due to contact with French. Recently I had two thoughts about our Gallic linguistic heritage, both of which I will share with you now.

First, I was always taught that the Germanic vocabulary in English was everyday and plain, whereas the French words were fancy. I suppose abstracted to a certain level this is true, but there are so many basic words of French origin in English (use, uncle, beef, catch, fork, pocket, people, person, very, really, sure) that I think I'll stop repeating the assertion that French words in English are particularly elevated.

Secondly, I used to think of all the French vocabulary in English as one undifferentiated chunk, with one explanation: You know, the Normans, 1066, etc. But this isn't really the case. English has been borrowing from French steadily over the last few centuries. I would divide Gallic vocabulary into three parts (get it?): the oldest, Norman strata, the modern borrowings, and then the contemporary borrowings that retain enough Frenchness to sometimes (not always) require italicization. The last of these groups have a certain je ne sais quoi with just a soupçon of élan, vis à vis their bonhomie and I went too far, didn't I? But many of the words on the middle group are undergoing an interesting change. They already have an accepted English pronunciation, but for various reasons their respective pronunciation is being re-Frenchified. The word niche, which used to rhyme with nitch, is increasingly rhyming with fish or leash; clique used to rhyme with lick, but often now it rhymes with leak, and homage now rhymes (sorta) with collage. As a reverse snob I'm proudly sticking to the older, less French pronunciation, but ultimately I've got no quarrel problem complaint beef with people who want to say it the Frenchy way. In fact, it's the existence of choices like that that make this a rich language. Like all languages.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Credit Card Scam #2

I got another call trying to sell me a dubious "protection service" for my credit card. This one was from 'Jose Roberts,' and involved protection against identity theft: for a mere $7.99 a month they would monitor my credit card activity for anything suspicious. Great.

As soon as Jose Roberts started "confirming my address" I told him I was not interested. He said, "Are you aware, Mr. Anymore, that over ten million Americans each year are victims of identity fraud, and that over 85% of them get arrested for crimes they did not commit?"

Those are frightening statistics indeed. They frighten me because if these statistics are part of Jose Roberts's script, it means that people must find them plausible. And that's frightening. I suppose ten million victims of identity theft is slightly plausible, if you define identity theft broadly enough to include any identity-related fraud. But the amazing one is that "85% of them get arrested for crimes they did not commit." So eight and a half million Americans are falsely arrested each year because of identity theft? Who could believe that? Now, I never complain about split infinitives, and I'm fine with sentences that end in prepositions and oblique subject pronouns in coordinated noun phrases. Hell, I don't even care about double negatives in speech. In short, I'm not a language curmudgeon, but that's because I know that all these supposed examples of ignorance are actually natural parts of the language. But having such a poor sense of proportion that you could believe that three percent of Americans are falsely arrested annually because of identity theft - that is genuine ignorance.

If I were involved in planning math curricula for grade schools, I would emphasize developing a sense of proportion and scale. That's way more useful than long division. Of course, I have no idea how to actually teach this skill, or if it can be taught, but hey, I'm being cranky here, and one of the perks of being a crank is that you can suggest simple solutions to complicated problems. Like this:

Poverty? More money!
Hunger? More food!
War? Stop fighting?
Cancer? A pill that gets rid of the cancer. Or maybe an ointment.

Things'd be a lot simpler of I were in charge.

Friday, April 07, 2006

The Chicago Dialect

Since a large plurality of my hits come from people googling "chicago dialect," I feel I owe it to the Information Superhighway to write a concise, nontechnical description of the dialect of Chicago and its surrounding area for anyone who is looking for such a thing. I will start with the following preface:

Who Speaks the Chicago Dialect?

Or rather, who doesn't? The answer, of course, is African Americans in the Chicago region, who have their own (and infinitely more interesting) dialect. Though this may be obvious, I point this out because African Americans are the largest population group in Chicago, and it would be irresponsible to overlook the fact that the Chicago dialect is not used by the largest sector of the city's population.


The most salient feature of the Chicago dialect is that it is undergoing the Northern Cities Vowel Shift. This is most noticeable in words with the /ae/ vowel, which gets "raised" so that it's close to /e/. Thus, 'bad' sounds a bit like 'bed,' or, to my ears, 'beead.' Another notable aspect of this vowel shift is that /o/ is "fronted" so that it is closer to /ah/. So hot sounds a lttle like 'hat.' As an ongoing change, it is more prevalent and more pronounced among young people, middle-class people, and females, but it is quite widespread. nearly all white Chicagoans exhibit this vowel shift, at least to some extent. A more local vowel development is a monophthongization of /ow/ to /oh/, so that 'south' becomes 'soth' and 'down' becomes 'don.' This is more conservative and less widespread.


The stereotype about Chicagoans is that they say "dis" instead of "this," but that's not entirely accurate. The real pronunciation is somewhere in between. To approximate it, first pronounce /th/ the standard way, with the tip of your tongue between your teeth. Then, keeping your teeth apart, move the tip of your tongue to the back of your teeth. That's the typical Chicago /th/. Contrast it with /d/, which is made with the teeth closed, and the tongue against the roof of the mouth. This is a conservative trait, and is more common among older people, working class people, and males. The unvoiced equivalent, that is, the /th/ of in the word 'thick' is even more conservative.


Chicago vocabulary is fairly unremarkable. As a cosmopolitan place, the vocabulary is more generalized than in rural areas, so that Chicagoans are at least familiar with words that were formerly used by dialectologists as markers of Southern dialect or "Midland" - that is, the dialect in between Northern and Southern. Nevertheless, there are a few localisms which are worth mentioning:

What other people call rubbernecking, Chicagoans call "gaping" - thus an accident on the side of the road can cause a "gapers' delay" or "gapers' block."

Also, Chicagoans are more likely to use the term "gym shoes." I remember thinking of this as a "fancy" word as a kid.


In Chicago, like in other American cities that had lots of German-speaking immigrants, "with" can be used more frequently as a verbal complement. Thus, while most Americans might say "come with," Chicagoans can also say "take with" and "have with." Consider the following bit of dialogue from Chicagoan David Mamet's play "American Buffalo," reconstructed from my fallible memory:
Donny: (Talking about a gun) I don't want it with.
Teach: Well, I want it with.
In the 1996 film version, Donny's line sounds fine when delivered by Chicagoan Dennis Franz, but Angeleno Dustin Hoffman has trouble making Teach's line sound natural; he's clearly uncomfortable saying it.


My only qualification for writing this is that I am from Chicago; I am no expert on the subject, but some of my readers are. Check the comments for edifying additions and corrections which are sure to come.

Hear Chicagoans Online

Here are two good samples. This one is relatively mild, but it is a recording of fairly natural speech. This one is an informant reading a text, which means it isn't totally natural speech, but the informant has a beautifully extreme form of the dialect. I don't think he's exaggerating.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Caption Contest #45

"At first I thought it was cruel to ban the students from the floor, but they've taken to it rather well."
"Next time Justin pushes someone off the swings, try suspending him, not gravity."

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Snow In April

Yes, it's early April and it's snowing in New York City. Yesterday was my fourth anniversary, and it snowed on the day I got married too, but that was Chicago.

Gene Pitney died today, in Cardiff, Wales, oddly enough. In case you don't know, Gene Pitney was a prolific and talented songwriter and performer who recorded a large number of hits in the early sixties and wrote an even larger number. Some of his best-known songs include
"(I Wanna) Love My Life Away"
"Town Without Pity"
"(The Man Who Shot) Liberty Valance"
"Twenty Four Hours From Tulsa"
"It Hurts To Be In Love"

In addition, he wrote "Hello Mary Lou" and "He's a Rebel," both of which are great, and the lesser, but still very good song "Rubber Ball," not to be confused with "Red Rubber Ball" (which Paul Simon wrote).

That's a pretty impressive body of work, isn't it? I sometimes wonder why some of the early sixties songwriters get respect and critical acclaim (Carole King, Burt Bacharach) while others are ignored (Mann/Weill, Barry/Greenwich, Pomus/Shuman) or slighted (Pitney, Neil Sedaka). I have a theory about this, actually. Notice that I listed all the 'ignored' songwriters as partnerships. This is because none of them had succesful careers as performers, and thus are usually not thought of as individuals. Moreover, the critically acclaimed songwriters were also succesful performers, but only after they had established themselves as songwriters, and, moreover, only after their styles had matured and progressed from their roots in commercial pop for teenagers. Pitney and Sedaka, on the other hand, became recording and performing stars in the pre-Beatles days of the early sixties. Thus they are personally associated with commercial, teenage-oriented pop, and tarnished as a result. I wonder if we would think of Carole King or Burt Bacharach the same way if King had recorded "The Locomotion" or "Take Good Care Of My Baby," or if Bacharach had recorded "Magic Moments" or "Baby It's You." (Incidentally, it is worth noting that Bacharach wrote a number of Gene Pitney's hits, including "(The Man Who Shot) Liberty Valance" and "Twenty Four Hours From Tulsa.")

To return to a theme I have posted on earlier, namely the complex relation between American and British pop music, I will note that in the mid-Sixties, when Pitney started to seem hopelessly square here in America, he continued to enjoy success in the United Kingdom; in fact, he was currently touring there, which is why he died in Wales. The Beach Boys experienced a similar second wind, as it were, in the UK in the late sixties. I sometimes wonder if this was a factor shaping British pop, that unfairly discarded American musicians had greater success in the UK in their mature periods.

But the bottom line is that Gene Pitney was underrated, and unfairly so. That's my point here, I think. My other point is that you shouldn't judge pre-Beatles pop too harshly; it's more sophisticated than you might think.

Monday, April 03, 2006

How You Sound

I was rereading Huckleberry Finn (perhaps my favorite book) the other day. One of this book's many charms is its presentation of dialects, about which Twain writes the following:

In this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri negro dialect; the extremest form of the backwoods Southwestern dialect; the ordinary "Pike County" dialect; and four modified varieties of this last. The shadings have not been done in a haphazard fashion, or by guesswork; but painstakingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity with these several forms of speech.

I make this explanation for the reason that without it many readers would suppose that all these characters were trying to talk alike and not succeeding.

Isn't that great? Not only does he emphasize the very real pitfalls of representing dialects in writing, but he does so with a deliciously dry wit that borders on juicy.

Not to say that I think he did a perfect job - Mark Liberman posted a while back at Language Log in which he points out the "eye dialect" Twain employs, particularly when he has Jim say 'wuz' -- who doesn't (duzn't?) pronounce it that way? Still, I'm sure he did a better job than I would. In any case, one phrase in particular caught my eye. Tom Sawyer repeatedly exclaims, "How you talk," and this reminded me of a phrase I heard often in childhood: "How you sound!" This latter phrase I heard exclusively from African Americans, who use it to mean something like, "Are you serious?" whereas Tom uses it to mean "What you just said was stupid!" I'm pretty sure the phrases are related, though. I've never heard anyone actually say "how you talk," and I haven't heard "how you sound" in years. My hunch is they're both Southern in origin, but this is the dialect I've had the least exposure to. I'm still curious: does anyone know anything about these phrases?

I reckon I got to light out for the territory.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Teh Then Commandments

I was thinking about the Greek and Hebrew alphabets recently, both of which are based on the Phoenician alphabet. In fact, at one point Hebrew was in fact written in the Phoenician alphabet, a historical detail that oddly enough is accurately reflected in Cecil B. DeMille's 1956 version of "The Ten Commandments," and, to a lesser extent, in his 1923 version.
The "Hebrew Alphabet" that we know today, used for Hebrew since at least the 6th century BCE, is actually the Aramaic alphabet, which was in turn just a stylized version of the Phoenician alphabet. Since Phoenician, Hebrew and Aramaic are all closely related, especially the first two, no substantive changes to the alphabet were necessary for the use of the Phoenician alphabet in writing Hebrew or Aramaic. For Greek, on the other hand, many changes were needed. Most importantly, Greeks needed to write vowels. In a process that has been repeated countless times in history when a Semitic writing system was adapted for use with an non-Semitic language (Hittite, Etruscan, Greek, Farsi, Yiddish, Turkish, to name a few examples) obsolete consonants were recycled as vowels. But, as the Yiddish writer Abramovitsh's character Mendele says, נישט דאָס בין איך אױסן "nisht dos bin ikh oysn" - that's not my point.

No, my topic today is the complex relation of the two unvoiced dental consonants in each alphabet - θ (theta) and τ (tau) in Greek, and >ט (teth) and ת (tav) in Hebrew. Both ת and θ are often transliterated as "th" in the Roman alphabet, and as a result, modern words based on Greek roots are written in Hebrew with ת standing in for θ; thus the word for mathematics is מתמטיקה (m-th-m-t-i-k-h). It is slightly surprising, then, that in fact the correspondance between the two letters is reversed. You can see this two ways: one has to do with the position of the respective letters in their respective alphabets: theta comes between eta and iota, whereas tau comes after sigma. Likewise, teth comes between eth and yod, and tav comes after sin. Also, consider the corresponding names: theta and teth, tav and tau. In fact consider teth, but flip around the th and the t, and you get "thet". Now do you believe me.

So how did it come about that the Roman alphabet grapheme "th" came to be used for Greek theta and Hebrew tau? The explanation is fairly simple: when Greek words were borrowed into Latin, "th" was used to show that the sound was an aspirated /t/, like in English 'top.' Get it? /t/+/h/= 'th'. At this point it might be useful to consider why the grapheme 'th' in English came to represent the sounds it does, namely voiced and unvoiced dental fricatives. According to the Wikipedia article on the subject,

By the time of New Testament Greek (koiné)... the aspirated stop had shifted to a fricative: /tʰ/→/θ/. Thus theta came to have the sound which it still has in Modern Greek, and which it represents in the IPA. From a Latin perspective, the established digraph now represented the voiceless fricative /θ/, and was used thus for English by French-speaking scribes after the Norman Conquest, since they were unfamiliar with the Germanic graphemes eth and thorn. Likewise, the spelling was used for /θ/ in Old High German prior to the completion of the High German consonant shift, again by analogy with the way Latin represented the Greek sound.

Philologists figured out fairly quickly that one function of the Hebrew letter tav must have been to represent an unvoiced dental fricative. These philologists, familiar with 'th' in OHG and English, rendered tav, when it was a continuant, as "th." Thus the relationship between the Greek letters and Hebrew ones was obscured.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Billy Preston & God

A while back I posted about my new hero, the songwriter and keyboardist Billy Preston. Back then I wasn't as web-savvy. What's more, lo, these last five months, the amount of streaming music and video on the web has increased exponentially (okay, perhaps not that much, but try to prove me wrong). Anyways, back then you had to take my word for it that Billy Preston was worthy of worship. Now I can prove it. Check out the following clip from George Harrison's fabled Concert for Bangladesh. Watch it all the way through, if you've got time and patience for it:
Billy Preston - That's The Way God Planned It
Now that's an amazing performance, you must admit, even if gospel-infused R&B isn't your cup of proverbial tea (Get it? infused? tea? Boy, sleep deprivation is a wild ride!) I have to say, that performance puts the fear of God in this atheist's soul, not that I believe I have one.