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.