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.