the phonetics/usage divide

as it turns out, Scott and I both have interesting, if somewhat predictable, phonetic foibles: I, like many Oklahomans, tend to relax tense vowels, which is especially notable in the "ai" diphthong in the word "while," which I pronounce similarly to "wall."

Scott's invented usage extends the rule that causes "f" to become voiced ("v") when an "s" is added after it at the end of a word. "life" becomes "lives," "wolf" becomes "wolves," "bath" "bathes", "belief" "believes" and so on. He sometimes pronounces the plural of "death" with a voiced fricative - "deatthhz." (there's no letter for that sound!) And the plural of "graph", "gravz."

Taken by themselves by linguists, these observations demonstrate regular changes that languages tend to undergo, or the application of an accent. But the more interesting thing is that these phonetic changes also depend on usage.

I do not pronounce "while" like "wall" in the sentence, "i've been saying it this way for a good long while." And Scott does not say "gravz" in the sentence, "he graphs tangents every thursday."

Both of these phonetic differences are not typically considered meaning-related. In most linguistic studies, phonetic and semantic changes are seen as occuring independently. But my more "careful" pronunciation of "while" when it's used as a noun (especially at the end of a sentence), and Scott's differentiation between singular verb and plural noun are only phonetically predictable when the meaning and the context of the words is taken into account.


Where did we go?

Well, it's been awhile since our last update. I suppose we got some 'splainin to do. I'll start with myself. My computer, god love it, basically stopped working last week. Woke up one morning and it said it couldn't find my harddrive, next thing I know it won't even load windows (I got it to work by tilting it on its side???). Right now I'm updating from an ancient computer we still have. It's got Windows 95 Plus!, you know, the one with all the "themes" and such.

But what of Cristi? Well now, that's a different animal. She's currently enjoying a relaxing(?) weekend with her extended family at reunion in Las Vegas. Last time we spoke, it was my understanding that she had one and lost no more than six dollars playing penny slots. How about that? So anyway, this accounts for her absense on the blog.

Needless to say, all of these problems will be fixed in the nearish future. Cristi returns sunday night, my computer returns... well, we'll see. I've got my fingers crossed for returning, let alone when. So soon, dear readers (are you there)? I'm sure there'll be much to talk about soon. Bear with us. We try. We really do.


ahwosg bookclub pt. 1

Welcome all to the first installment of the Invented Usage "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius" Bookclub! That's right. We didn't read it when it came out like everyone else. We pride ourselves on being way behind the times (from time to time). But you like it and love it. So here it is. As you join us. We've just completed the lengthy introduction and part one of the text.

c: I have to say, from the title, i was expecting something a bit more cosmic... more Umberto Ecco (whom i haven't read... but still). I guess i'm just hoping there's something more heartbreaking and staggering in it than cancer and parent-death.

s: Yeah, agreed. I'm not to sure what to make of all of this yet. It's not a very 'thick' book. Page wise, yes, it's pretty thick, but content wise. I don't know it seems a little thin to me so far.

c: i like how the two deaths are staged chronologically - they're interlaced; but i'm not sure exactly what this method of storytelling conveys. Are we supposed to be viewing the deaths from the main character's perspective? is this how he experienced them?

s: story wise, things are pretty basic. it appears that the narration is shrouded in gimmickry that i'm supposed to find amusing.

c: do you find it amusing?

s: in places, but for the most part, i think it's covering trails of humor already covered, and perhaps, at the time of the book's release, these trails hadn't been used yet. But even so, if it's not funny now, then it was never really that funny in the first place. in a sense, i feel like i'm watching "I love the 90s" as i read the book.

c: i find myself wondering whether a lot of the book's initial impact came from its originality. i think that witty, po-mo, self-referentiality was, at one time, a very new idea. but now we've read david foster wallace and the whole new generation of writers that he and Eggers spawned, so i feel like the style has lost some freshness.

s: there's something cold and calculating about the book that i can't put my finger on. AHWOSG feels to me like the cool kid in english class... the one that breaks the rules because they know what they are and can do it, but once everyone's graduated, they realize what a bunch of subterfuge and fakery it all was. it really just comes across as it dave eggers is posing for us, and i don't really care.

c: he does mention in the introduction the possibility of exploitation that an autobiography poses; but i don't think addressing it in this ironic way necessarily gets him off the hook for it.

s: not at all. if anything, it makes it more irritating. 'look over here at the bearded lady! this is not an autobiography -- oh, wait... it is.'

c: i guess if it gets really really heartbreaking and staggering as it goes on, i could forgive pretty much any amount of posing. but i'm getting more and more concerned that he won't be able to pull it off.

s: what is this? Catcer in the Rye!? woof.


truth conditions my left eye.

Here's a weird thing (taken from Wikipedia, of course!):
...close examination of natural language proved to be a powerful philosophical technique. Practitioners since have included J. L. Austin, P. F. Strawson, John Searle, Paul Grice, R. M. Hare, R. S. Peters, and J├╝rgen Habermas.
Hm... it seems like there are other philosophers who may have used close examination of natural language... like EVERY post-structuralist philosopher... EVER! It's a nerdy complaint, at first, but every time I encounter a text about the philosophy of language, I see more or less this same list of names, and little or no mention of Derrida, Foucault, Lyotard, Althusser, etc.

Actually, under the entry about Habermas, I thought I saw a picture that might have been Derrida, but it turned out to be the pope. So that's pretty telling. (As it turns out, Habermas and Derrida were bitterest of enemies. Also, the first time I encountered Austin and Searle was in Derrida's "Limited Inc.", in which he really just rips them to ribbons.)

The Philosophy of Language Guys are looking for the 'meaning' of language, and the rules by which it operates. The post-structuralists tend to talk about broad categories like "discourse," "writing in general," "language in general," and never, under any circumstances, about rules. Truth conditional semantics is an excellent example of this divide. In a largely unsuccessful, but useful, project, many semanticists have tried to reduce language to truth conditions, while post-structuralists argue that there is no truth outside of language; that language itself is the condition of 'truth' and 'falsehood.'

There are those, such as Stanley Fish, and Mikhail Bakhtin, whom we've mentioned on this site before, who come from literary studies using deconstructive techniques, and approach linguistics. But for the most part, the cross-over between postmodern (which i'll use loosely to mean informed by post-structuralism) thinking and linguistics/semantics/pragmatics/philosophy of language is non-existent.

In her 2002 book, The Politics of Postmodernism, Linda Hutcheon includes an epilogue which amounts to a laundry list of theorists and disciplines. She writes,
It would likely be no exaggeration to say that, like all art forms... all disciplines have engaged in some way in the postmodern debates in recent yeras. Even religious studies showed the impact of postmodern theory... New areas flourished, influenced to some extent by postmodern deconstructing impulses: critical legal studies... social theory... politics.
And where is a poststructural linguistics, and perhaps more importantly (and mysteriously!) a linguistic poststructuralism?


it is imperative: you go see batman.

I was going to finish up a post about truth conditions and philosophy of language (don't worry, it's saved as a draft), but i just saw Batman!

Also, the post that's contributed the most search-engine hits to our statistics is star wars quotes out of context, and particularly the phrase "light saber sound effects."

Batman! Batman... Begins! It's a parable, a classic American tale of power, responsibility, citizenship, ninjas, liam neeson(sp?)! Watch out, i'm about to spoil the plot, but not the endless play of readings it gives rise to:

Christian Bale has freckles, and he's cute, and his dad is an all-american hero, and then... tragedy. Fear! Seduced by the dark side of the force, Christian meets Raz... Adgool? or something?... it sounded Arabic. He teaches Bruce Wayne the power of an idea over the minds of men. But, Christian soon has to make a difficult decision between two competing loyalties: loyalty to his teacher and his cult; or loyalty to his city, his fatherland.

He chooses America, and returns home to fight off both the evil foreign ninjas and petty theives who do not value their citizenship in Gotham City. The City, though, is owned by corrupt cops and mob bosses who rule by fear, though they have not mastered their own. The bad guys (ninjas) too, rely on fear. Their style is random chemical warfare attacks designed to terrorize the general public.

Throughout the movie, those who wish to terrorize their enemies must become "ideas," "symbols," "bad thoughts." It's a stirring theme--become something to be feared, and you must lose your identity. In some cases, this is how the bad guys become even more demonic, but it's also the way in which Bruce Wayne sacrifices when he becomes Batman--a cause, and a symbol with more power than a man.

Finally, Christian must decide whether, dispite its sins, Gotham city is worth saving--in definace of liam neeson, the ninja master who offers him the chance to be part of the large, redeeming cycle of history. It almost comes as no surprise that Batman's father was the last person to defend the city's honor against the ninjas, but that his failure to act cost him his life. The choice for Batman, and for all americans, seems clear.

And that's just it: it's a great movie, and it's a great movie with absolutely conservative (somewhat christian) ideas about justice and responsibility. The bad guys want to spread terror, and it's Batman's (individualistic, but motivated by charity) job to make sure the people of his homeland get a second chance to lead good lives and appreciate their city. Batman, suddenly, is a real american hero: he believes in democracy, in self-determination, and he wins, and we love it. And what if that's ok? (plus, the bad guys are hijacking weapons and modes of mass transit to attack a building that is both physically and symbolically central to the (new york) city in order to release a cloud of terror gas on the general public and liam neeson dies proudly, a martyr for his eastern cause...)

Does Gotham City deserve to survive? This is the question the movie doesn't answer. But we rest assured that Batman has always made his choice.

p.s.-- my two hours, 14 minutes, was not wasted to the world of linguistic inquiry: one of my friends distinctly asked the other to please give him "a reesee peecee," and it was clear to all listeners that he wanted one of the many available "reese's pieces."


i saw the best minds of my generation...

Check out 31 Groundbreaking Works of American Poetry. It's, like, woah. I was happy to see a lot of these books here, but also sad to see some omitted. Although, the only one that really came to mind instantly was Frank Stanford's awesome work The Battlefield Where The Moon Says I Love You. If you haven't gotten the chance to read it, you should. You should at least check out to the link to his poetry if you're unfamiliar with it. I'd specifically recommend Death and the Arkansas River from Constant Stranger.

I was really surprised to see the big guy Charles Olson on the list (WHALE of a man he was). Now, I haven't made my way through The Maximus Poems except for the often excerpted parts of it that appear in anthologies. I was, however, under the impression that the collection was not most people's bag of tricks. Instead, Olson's legacy seems to be built around PROJECTIVE VERSE and his Melville criticism (Call Me Ishmael).

Most of selections were solid, but pretty unsurprising. Was happy to see Ashbery's Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror on the list, but that's about as surprising for a list of American poetry as The Beatles making a greatest bands of all time list. O'Hara's Lunch Poems another great collection.

Perhaps it's a bit recent, but I was actually very disappointed not to see Charles Simic's The World Doesn't End on the list. For the uninitiated, it's a phenomenal work of prose poetry that at least I've found has changed my opinions on the genre. Please, find it if you haven't read it.

Also, where's everyone's favorite estlin? e. e. cummings notably absent from a list of groundbreaking american poets. Pretty curious. Also, can I get a L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poet?

Actually, this list is pretty conservative isn't it? I mean, Creeley, Olson, Ginsberg, Eliot, Pound were all pretty wild for their day, but aren't they the poetic mainstream now? Were they ever really that groundbreaking to begin with? Well yes. They were, but there has been some truly experimental work produced by the US and A. What of that?

I wonder how a list like this will shape up twenty years from now. The current list is pretty backwards looking. Who's going to make the list that's been writing since the 90s?

Apologies for the scattershot reactions. I'm at work.


cryptic crosswords: uhm, syntactosemantic models?

7 Across: Nothing changes egg producers (7 letters). The first letter is an "o." Stay tuned!

Cryptic crossword clues are simultaneously definitions and other types of word puzzles: hidden words, anagrams, reversed words, double meanings, and more! But there's a trick: the puzzle solver doesn't know which type of word play she has encountered until she also knows which word might point to the definition. For instance, "nothing changes egg producers" might mean that a word meaning "nothing" is an anagram of the letters in "egg producers" or vice versa. It could also mean that a word meaning "nothing changes" also means "egg producers," or that a word meaning "nothing" is inserted into "egg" to form a 7-letter word meaning "producers." etc.

Also, each clue is itself a short (and quasi-logical) sentence or fragment that has nothing to do with the answer itself. So the reader must simultaneously perform several operations on the clue: reading the sentence as a whole and for its possible combinations of constituents, reading each word (and constituent) to find a)its synonyms, b)possible operations in the clue it might indicate (ex: "changes" might mean that a word's letters are scrambled), c)combinations of letters in it that might form other words, d)its homophones, and more...

But none of these operations alone is enough to guarantee a solution to the puzzle. The reader, as they read, must perform the above operations to generate possible solutions, and simultaneously cross-check them with the other operations occuring on the other words in the clue and the possible types of operations being performed by the clue writer, etc. whew! complicated run on sentences describing mental processes!

But a process like this one seems to better simulate what goes on in language processing than the model which seeks to separate semantics from syntax from phonology from morphology. As in the recently-posted recipe, which i still urge you to try, in real language processing environments, we can distinguish between "apple" and "an apple" without the presence of the article on the basis of context. we can use homophones to read through typos and misspellings (i typed "nugmeg" for "nutmeg," but the reader could still understand it), we can manipulate mulitple meanings of the same word or phrase to understand puns, irony, idiom, and metaphor ("keep an eye on crust brownness"--eww!), and can easily judge the meanings of technically ambiguous sentences and references on the basis of context ("press all into pie dish with your fingers" might sound like an ancient proverb, but "all" means all the dough, not all of creation).

And, to press all into pie dish with my fingers: we achieve understanding about the syntax of the sentence and the meanings of the indivdual words at the same time. Neither recipes nor cryptic crossword clues can be understood by sifting each word separately and then mixing them together.

Answer: OVARIES, (it's a synonym for "egg producers," and it's also 0[meaning "nothing"] + VARIES [meaning changes])


exclusionary tactics

Most first-year semantics students have encountered the Conversational Principles:

Be informative.
Don't give more information than necessary.
Be relevant.
Don't say things for which you lack evidence.
Don't say things you believe to be false.
Avoid ambiguity.
Avoid obscurity of expression.

I'm not certain that's all of them, but it's enough for now. The conversational principles are not exactly rules, they're just tendencies that most speakers will tend to follow. And, in general, they're so universally recognized that when a speaker breaks one intentionally ("flouts it," as semanticists would say), it causes certain predictable implications (or "implicatures"). For example, consider the following conversation:
A: Don't you hate that Mrs. Smith? Isn't she a cheese-reeking old bag?
B: Uh... so, how 'bout those Mets?
Since B's comment isn't relevant, it breaks one of the conversational principles (which tells speakers to Be Relevant), and implies something completely unstated in the dialogue: that B, for whatever reason, doesn't want to talk about Mrs. Smith.

The more interesting thing about the conversational principles is that, while speakers (and listeners) usually have no knowledge of them, there are certain cases in which we consider them non-operational. The implicatures usually generated by flouting the principles do not arise if the speaker is judged to be linguistically incompetent (i.e., a child, insane, a non-native speaker, sleep-talking, etc.)

And, by and large, the exclusion of those considered incompetent is useful. But, subtler and more common exclusions occur all the time, based only on the way in which a speaker uses the language. Many such instances have already appeared in our previous posts: teenagers who overuse "like" are deemed unworthy and stupid; individual poems and poets are disregarded because they do not rely on traditional rhyme and meter; bloggers are accused of corrupting the essay form; even "incorrect" spelling is used to discredit arguments.

Each of these critiques share a common feature: they are each based on a distinction between "correct" and "incorrect" uses of language. And I think in each case we (and some of our readers) have argued that, in language, there is only convention, and no correctness. In each case, understandability isn't threatened, but conventional norms are. Why protect the norms if breaking them doesn't interfere with comprehension?

How we judge each other's competence: level of education, normalcy, maturity, right-mindedness, also determines the very rules by which we listen to each other. Why respect the rules of language more than the people who use and change them?

poem for some order of time on the magnitude of days

Cristi says there should be more poetry here. I say, "OK!"

from Long Summer


At dawn, the crisp goodbye of friends; at night,
enemies reunited, who tread, unmoving,
like circus poodles dancing on a ball--
something inhuman always rising in us,
punching you with embraces, holding out
a hesitant hand, unbending as a broom;
heaping the bright logs brighter, till we sweat
and shine as if anointed with hot oil:
straight alcohol, bright drops, dime-size and silver....
Each day more poignantly resolved to stay,
each day more brutal, oracular and rooted,
dehydrated, and smiling in the fire,
unbandaging his tender, blood-baked foot,
hurt when he kicked aside the last dead bottle.

-Robert Lowell

Aunt Muriel's Famous Apple Pie

Here's some actual recipe syntax (as typed by a real cook) for everyone who loves apple pie and linguistics:


Preheat oven to 425 deg.
1 1/4 cup regular flour
1/8 tsp salt
2tbs sugar
1 stick cold unsalted butter
1 egg yoke
2 1/2 tbs. cold water

mix dry ingredients / add cold butter—mix by hand 'till crumbly
mix egg yoke with cold water before adding to dry ingredients
press all into pie dish with your fingers

3/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup flour
1/2 tsp nugmeg
1/2 tsp cinnamon
dash salt
6 to 8 small apples (slice thin- pie will cook better, I use more rather than less—lemon juice will keep the apples from browning)
2 tbs unsalted butter

mix all together, then layer apples in pie crust and use filling to fill voids in layers(doesn't have to be fancy) dot with butter slices

3/4 cup flour
1/2 cup sugar
3/4 stick cold unsalted butter

mix dry then incorporate butter, then add to pie top- use all

Cover crust rim with foil until last 15 minutes
Cook @ 425 deg. For 40 minutes (keep an eye on crust brownness)

Some linguistic notes to make this a more legitimate post: "the apples" or just "apples" refer to the apple slices in the filling section, but note that, for the most part, the writer avoids using articles where possible. "dry" refers to "the dry ingredients"; "butter" refers to "the butter"; "all" refers to "all of resulting mixture" and so on.

In a recipe, we've already had a first mention of "the apples", so every usage following supposes that the reader knows what apple is in question, and doesn't even require the further clarification of an article.

This is a great recipe, too!


Where did all this apple come from?

If you smash an apple with a hammer, then it becomes apple. If you smash a rock with a hammer, then it becomes rock. Or does it become rocks?

Maybe the change of the article depends upon our certainty of the object's origin. In the case of the apple, we are sure that the apple mush was at one point an entire apple. We saw the original apple. It was smashed apart. The chunks on the counter, the juice, the mush. They are apple. If we came to the scene after the smashing, would it still be apple? There would be a period of recognition. The taste, the smell, the look. Maybe we could identify it as apple. If we can't then it's something else all together.

Speedwell writes:
I disagree with the example. If you had a recipe for apple cake that called for "one mashed apple," for example, you would not think twice if the instructions said to "add the apple to the batter." By the same token, if it called for "three mashed apples,"then said to "add the apples to the batter," you would understand very clearly.

This doesn't undercut the example at all. One uses the article because of the recipe context which calls for specific quantities of ingredients. In the example sentences you have given, what is being being asked is this: "Add the "substance which we have come to call 'apple'" to the batter (not "the apple" meaning a whole apple). It is the difference between saying "the apple" and the "apple". If you follow.

Going back to Cristi's example. When confronted with the apple on the counter one could say "who got apple all over the counter?" However, if that person were commanding someone else to clean the "apple" off of the counter than they would say "clean the apple off of the counter". The same grammatical tricks are at play here as in the recipe example. Cristi?


who got this post all over the place!?

Here's a language puzzle a friend posed to me and I posed to Scott: You have an apple. Imagine it sitting on the table in front of you. Now, you hit it with a hammer once. Is it still an apple? (Most listeners say "yes".) Then you hit it hundreds of times until it's all over the table. Is it still an apple? (Most listeners say "no," Scott says, "no, then it's just apple.")

The puzzle is supposed to interrogate the point at which something loses identity, but we became fascinated with the fact that this whole distinction can be encapsulated by the difference between "an apple," "the apple," and "apple."

I've just encountered tips for ESL speakers page that explains it this way: the indefinite articles (a, an) are only appropriate if the noun in question is "countable." As in "I had three apples, now I only have an apple." But "apple" is uncountable because it's just the material, and not any sort of totality. Consider the distinction between "glass" and "a glass," or between some bodily materials ("crap," others that shall remain nameless) and their countable counterparts. I learned from the above site that some nouns are considered countable in some languages and not in others, and I think this is evidence for the fact that the distinction between "apple" and "an apple" is more conventional than natural.

Additionally, we've had some great laughs totalizing and de-totalizing common nouns, like: "ugh, who got phone all over the place!?" "hold on, i've got a sand in my eye" "would you pass me a celery?" "eww, i'm covered in chair!" (It's more fun than you'd think! Feel free to send us your results.)

Finally, we noticed that the definite article doesn't bow to the totalized/untotalized distinction. "The apple is on the table" can mean either "an apple is on the table, and we both know which apple it is" or "there's apple on the table, and we both know which apple mush i'm talking about." Either way, use of the definite article is not licensed by any quality, such as countablility, of the noun, but by the speaker's and listener's shared knowledge of the noun in question.


star wars 'quotations' out of context...

Palpatine: It wasn't the first time Anakin. Remember what you told me about your mother... and... the Sand People?!


Gen. Grievous: Activate the ray shields!
Obi-Wan: Oh no! Ray shields!

Seriously. Grievous? What?


Palpatine: (Something about the dark side isn't 'evil' it's just an expansion of your perceptions)


Obi-Wan: Only a sith deals in absolutes! (cue lightsaber sound effect and really long lightsaber battle)


Dr. Evil: Liquid hot magma.


Yoda: Not if anything to say about it, I have.


Yoda: Go I will. Good relations with the wookiees, I have.


Obi-Wan: I saw a security hologram of him killing YOUNGLINGS!


Chewbacca: RAWR!!


Cristi: Where is Han Solo?
Scott: Oh. He's doing the corescant run in 6 par secs.

Forgive our non-standard Stern Krieg spelling.

For extra fun try replacing nouns from YOUR favorite Star Wars(tm) quotes with "pants". For bonus points try adding "... in bed" to the conclusion. Please, be sure to send us all your hilaaaarious results. <@:-)