go sok!

I've sort of buried the hatchet. There's at least one reasonable prescriptivist out there, and she blogs here: Red Pen, Inc. I feel like I've got an evil twin. It's a cute, snarkily written blogspot website with a home-made, annotated banner. But she consistently uses capitalization. (I have too, for the last few posts. More on that later.) We exchanged a nice series of emails regarding this post, but it's this one, about the Red Sox, that I want to take issue with.

Leave aside for the moment that she's a Yankees fan, though that explains some of her added grammar-nazi ire. Leave aside the fact that Scott has found that blogging about the Red Sox drastically increases your hit count, though that partly explains this post and completely explains this parenthetical (Big Pappi David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez, Jason Varitek, 2007 World Series Champs).

For now, let's just consider how angry she is about this error:
Curt Schilling will remain a Red Sox.
She's really angry. Notice, I don't disagree that it's an error. If it were Derek Cheater, he would be remaining a Damn Yankee, not a Damn Yankees. But the correction that she suggests is, "Curt Schilling will remain a Red Sock," which strikes me as preposterous.

Now, the 'Sox' spelling is presumably a phonetic adaptation of the common noun 'socks.' 'X,' god knows why, makes the same sound as 'ks,' or, it's often spelled, 'cks.' But I don't think we should assume that we can subtract sounds the same way we subtract letters to go from plural to singular. Clearly, when the Sox instituted their invented spelling, they should have determined and publicized the preferred singular. They're not perfect, after all.

But I think we should embrace the haphazard, happy-go-lucky, Manny-being-Manny ethos of the Sox. Let's make Johnathan Papelbon a 'Red Sok.' Let's admit to our phonetic natures and do away with the stodgy, old English 'c.' I've only found one web site that uses this, but it looks fairly high-level, and it doesn't mention the use at all, it just does it, as though it had done it before. All the other first-page hits seem to use 'Red Sok' as the plural. Get out your Red Pen... even I don't understand that one.


what's in a whole nother error?

so, in my last post, i discussed the two definitions of error: grammatical or usage error ('spicket' for 'spigot') and technical speech errors ('cattleships and bruisers' for 'battleships and cruisers'). i'd like to address another, somewhat related, error issue that sprung from my thesis project on typos.

speech errors follow very predictable patterns. they are totally constrained by certain rules such as 'vowels only slip with vowels' and 'speech errors only produce valid syllables.' that is, 'bad' would never slip and become 'abd' because this involves a consonant/vowel swap and produces a sound combination, 'bd,' that doesn't occur in english.

clearly, typos don't obey these rules. the common typo the-->hte is a good example. 'ht' is not a valid word beginning, and yet this typo occurs all the time. most of the typos that violate the rules of speech errors have pretty clear motivations. 'hte' involves switching two adjacent letters. 'tghis' involves accidentally hitting a key next to the intended one. but in my thesis, i found a lot of typos that seem unmotivated by physical factors of the keyboard. for instance, someone substituted a 'b' for a 'p' and one typed 'soom bo-' when they meant to type 'some books.'

similarity of units has always been acknowledged as a factor in speech errors. each speech sound has a set of features (place of articulation in the mouth, manner of articulation, and whether or not the vocal chords are vibrating), and the more features two sounds share, the more likely they are to slip with one another. 'b' for 'p' makes sense as a speech error because the two sounds share every feature except voicing. but as a typo, it's hard to understand because the two letters are so far apart on the keyboard.

so it seems that there are some typos that obey the speech error constraints and are based on phonetic similarity. but some are based only on motoric or articulatory similarity. this has a couple of implications, i believe.

first, it seems to indicate that we do use inner speech when we type. the sounds of language play a role in the way we plan our typing, which doesn't involve sound in any other way. second, it means that we're able to separate articulatory features from phonetic features. this makes the comparison to speech kind of tricky, because in speech, the notions of articulatory and phonological similarity are the same. that is, phonological similarity is based on the physical characteristics of a particular medium--the human mouth we all share. it's as much an historical accident as they layout of the keyboard!

AND i have a completely unfounded theory! another thing happens in speech because of articulatory factors: transformations in quick speech. these are things like 'did you eat?' becoming 'jeet?' linguists don't consider these errors, in part because they're very predictable. so what if these kinds of abbreviations--which, remember, occur because of fast articulation--were analogous to articulatory errors (those caused by the layout of the keyboard) in typing? these kind of errors are, almost certainly, more common in fast typing and, if collapses aren't counted as errors, typing errors vastly outnumber speech errors. i'm not saying the numbers shold match perfectly, but the difference in frequency i found was really huge, and when i compared speech errors only to speech-error like typos, the numbers were quite similar. (sorry i'm being too lazy to actually haul out my thesis and give you the exact numbers. i'll send you a copy if you want one.)

i think the only real difference between articlatory laziness in speech and typing errors is that the former is completely expected. it's only in recent years that typing has become a real-time communications medium, and i would guess that we'll start to see more of these typos going uncorrected. i've certainly noticed that i tend to not correct them in informal im conversations, especially if they're fairly predictable and don't disrupt interpretation, like how-->hwo.

it's also interesting to note that almost all the definitions of error that we've encountered involve accidental violation of the speaker's intention. and these articulatory foibles certainly fit that bill. few people would think they meant to say 'jew eat?' or 'jeet?' rather than 'did you eat?' but we all do it the same way we all occasionally, predictably type 'teh.'


what's in an error?

seb's recent post raises several interesting questions. the one that currently interests me most is: what is the definition of a speech error?

for most of the cognitive and linguistic literature on speech errors, it's something like 'an utterance that doesn't correspond to the utterance the speaker intended to produce.' people that use this definition are generally studying instances like "cattleships and bruisers" being produced when "battleships and cruisers" was intended. these are known as errors of performance. what this definition (sometimes explicitly) excludes are errors of competence. these are substitutions like "spicket" for "spigot." for most linguists, if you think that word is "spicket," intend to say it that way, and execute it properly, you haven't made an error.

or have you? clearly, for grammarians, using the word "spicket" where better-educated speakers would use "spigot" is an error. it's a violation of, as seb says, "the way things are" in the language at this point in time.

what's the disconnect here? grammarians are talking about the Language as it is recorded in dictionaries and linguists are talking about the intention a speaker has to make a particular utterance without regard to its correctness in the Language as a whole. this seems to be Saussure's parole and langue distinction in action. langue was his term for the language as a whole unified entity, whereas parole was the individual utterance spoken at a particular moment in an absolutely unique context.

the two domains are so distinct that they even have completely different ways of defining what an error is. yet it strikes me as part of the mystery of language that langue is built completely from parole. and, in turn, parole is built on langue; we each learn how to form utterances by taking in a ton of language, riddled with error though they may be.

what interests me further is this: the two constructions stand in very different relations to the speaking subject. he's sort of surrounded by langue while in control of parole. but both definitions of error have to do with the speakers' intention. what does this mean for educational policy? what does it mean for humanity? stay tuned?


Common Errors in English

I'm too slow on my defense of a radicalized gaming agenda, but I found a website today that works hard to fight any sort of radicalized linguistic agenda.

I give you:

Common Errors in English

It is a compilation of "errors" in the English language. It is quite impressive, covering everything from the use of "spicket" to mean "spigot" to the alleged redundancy of "cheese quesadilla."

This raises a question for me, though: isn't it a contradiction for something to be a common linguistic error? Paul Brians, the creator of the site (and the book it's based off of) is not ignorant of the point, and presents his work in a particular, practical context:

What is an error in English?
The concept of language errors is a fuzzy one. I’ll leave to linguists the technical definitions. Here we’re concerned only with deviations from the standard use of English as judged by sophisticated users such as professional writers, editors, teachers, and literate executives and personnel officers. The aim of this site is to help you avoid low grades, lost employment opportunities, lost business, and titters of amusement at the way you write or speak.

But isn’t one person’s mistake another’s standard usage?
Often enough, but if your standard usage causes other people to consider you stupid or ignorant, you may want to consider changing it. You have the right to express yourself in any manner you please, but if you wish to communicate effectively, you should use nonstandard English only when you intend to, rather than fall into it because you don’t know any better.

What do we think about this? Paul Brians seems innocent enough. But how should we deal with the problem of language standardization in general? I once heard a great definition of a speech error, which was simply a speech act that doesn't have the effects that it was intended to have. If that's the case, the Brians' catalogue would be appropriately named--he is not universally prescribing a usage as "true" to the language, but rather providing a kind of instrumental prescription: "To not be laughed at, don't say 'spicket.'"

Perhaps this awareness of the scope of the prescription is all that's needed in linguistic education to make it less insidious. If language is taught not as "correct" or "incorrect" but rather as "(in the present context) effective" and "(in the present context) ineffective)", politicization of speech 'errors' (with its racist and classist effects) might not make as much sense to anybody.

On the other hand, linguistic competence seems to be such a basic faculty, I have doubts that conscious realization of the contingency of linguistic 'rules' will do much to stop the automatic perception of those that make 'errors' as being ignorant of some True Way Things Are.

But on a third hand--is incompetence withing the scope of the present linguistic conditions any better than a kind of ignorance of some (perceived as) universalized facts about language? Maybe speech errors ought to be looked down on, if only as a way of providing an incentive for people to get up to speed.


on scrabble

seb makes an interesting suggestion, though i'm inclined to think he's just upset that i used the word 'sunns' in online scrabble. he suggests that "there's room for an invented usage scrabble variant." and, as usual, i'm inclined to disagree!

how do i reconcile my love of scrabble with my "anarchic linguistic crusade"? very simply. scrabble is a game, and games have to have rules. the best games have just enough rules so that they're hard but not impossible. they achieve a certain balance that i've never really articulated well. they create situations in which you're forced to make difficult strategic decisions: gain short term to lose long term? help myself or hurt my opponent? conserve resources but risk being unable to use them later?

scrabble achieves this through a complicated calculus of points and letter frequencies. letters that are harder to use are worth more points, which, if you replace 'letters' with 'resources', is a pretty popular conceit in games, it seems to me. scrabble just happens to use language as the environment for this balancing act.

to make language an appropriate game environment, it has to be solidified. this crystalization, of course, is artificial, even though we tend to believe that it's not. i'm certainly willing to accept the tyranny of the dictionary if it makes for a good game, just as i'm willing to accept the fact that there are only four aces in a deck of cards.

i still haven't read wittgenstein, but he did famously say that language is a game. once again, i'm inclined to disagree. language doesn't have rules--it has conventions that change constantly. it's not designed to be balanced--it's not designed at all. and it's cooperative, not competitive. there are no resources to be conserved or advantages to be gained by the actual use of language--it's a tool for achieving those advantages, if one is so inclined.

when it comes to scrabble, i'm not even that interested in the words. yes, it's easier to use your resources if you know a lot of them, but who cares what 'sunns' means? it's just five one-point tiles that got me 14 points.


i can't get no satisfying

at a poetry reading tonight, a short poet approached the mic and said 'let me just shortify this real fast.' later, the mc offered to 'shortify' the mic for a poet in a wheelchair (i believe she was in a wheelchair... my view of her was completely obstructed by a wall. It's possible she was also short.)

anyway, the interesting thing about 'shortifying' is that it forms a minimal pair with another more traditional word: 'shortening.' why didn't the poets say 'i'm going to shorten the mic'?

i have an intuition about this, but i've having trouble locating its origin. i believe it means that there is a state of 'shortness' or and when we 'shortify' we're bringing objects into accord with it. that is, the verb form actually takes what was once an attribute of people and turns it into an identity that a group of people share.

i'm reminded of my last post, and i think this applies to 'greening' as well, but that undermines my hypothesis that it's the verb form -ify-ing that creates the effect. mystery still unsolved!!
i wonder if the blogger on noncompositional, which i discovered earlier today, would have anything to say about that?


junie b. good

a friend sent me this link to the new york times website recently. (i think it will require a sign-in, but should be free.) apparently a series of children's books is bringing the great grammar debate home to the parents of kindergarten-age kids.

junie b. is the name of the back-talking trouble-making main character of the series. junie narrates the book and her kindergarten and first-grade reading level make themselves seen in the text of the book. according to the article, the narration contains misspelled words, improper subject-verb agreement and incorrectly conjugated irregular past tense verbs.

many parents favor the spunky heroine and the books' humor, but just as many are incensed that they expose kids to potentially harmful improper grammar and bratty behavior. this forum on about.com is a treasure trove of popular opinions about usage and grammar. this is another incarnation of the prescriptivist/descriptivist debate that has raged in linguistics departments and usage textbooks for several decades. bluntly, prescriptivists believe that grammar rules exist for a reason and that deviations from what is currently known as standard english should be corrected. descriptivists acknowledge the room for variation in linguistic standards and try to describe 'deviations,' rather than eliminate them. real people, of course, hold all kinds of positions in between. what we'll call 'prescriptivist' parents believe that reading improper grammar will cause their kids to have lower reading scores and trouble with grammar themselves. 'descriptivists' believe that junie b.'s speech is normal for a young child and not harmful.

as with most things, i believe the right position is somewhere in the middle. a bit of digging into both the ny times article and the about.com forum reveal this position: the books are good because they entertain children and encourage them to read. all kids make errors while they're leaning; it's probably interesting for them to read about a character who makes the same mistakes. but prescriptivists are realists in one respect; one can't go through life in our society using improper spelling and grammar and be taken seriously in school or business. proper grammar is a mark of status and education just like personal hygiene or polite behavior. i would personally argue that kids should learn to recognize mistakes so that they can understand the social implications of making them and make informed decisions about whether or not they want to. the junie b. books could provide a great tool for parents to teach the meta-analysis that asks not just 'why did junie say that?' but 'why did junie say it that way?' Link


green me up, scotty

i've had a couple of run ins with greening in recent days. espn (i've been watching a lot lately) is greening in san fransisco: an advertisement behind home plate currently says
let's green this city(.com, i think)
and, in route 66, where i'm currently working, the all-natural window spray i use to clean glass surfaces is called

greening the cleaning

in the first usage is a a standard infinitive verb following after a modal. in the second it is a past participle. it's a weird sentence fragment, almost like they're saying 'we are greening the cleaning' or 'you are greening the cleaning.'

for some reason, when i think of other verbs that occupy these sentence frames, they all end up sound very hip. i would say things like let's rock this city
rocking the cleaning.

so, whatever this 'to green' is, it sounds like something i want to do. more importantly, it sounds like some change i might want to bring over various mundane objects. used, as it is, in the context of advertisements and brand names, it must be something good.

'green' is widely used as an adjective meaning 'environmentally friendly' as in phrases like, 'we're a green store,' or 'the green party.' so it seems to be a way of encouraging hip people to convert their environs to the environmentally friendly. i also believe, though, that uses like these change how we think about the process of making things green. maybe it makes it seem gradual or plausible. maybe it makes it seem like something one person can begin by buying one product. advertisers must hope so. the only question now is: will greening catch on? the proof will be in the language.


the ascent of aave

aave, or african american vernacular english (a.k.a. black english or ebonics) is a dialect of english most often spoken by african americans. it's often considered to be a substandard version of english, though many have argued for it to be considered a separate language or an equally accepted dialect and view its substandard status as the result of racism and prejudice.

whichever side of this great debate you fall on, you can't dispute what i saw on espn a few days ago. a couple of their shows (i can't keep them straight--i think it was sports center and baseball tonight) feature two to four men talking. the men tend to be of varied ages and races, as we'd probably expect in this day and age. but i'm fairly sure that it's only in the last few years that any commentators have been using aave on the air while sitting behind a desk and wearing suits. one of the young african american hosts especially used some of the hallmarks of aave syntax, such as the possesive 'they' as in, "they offense weak because they quarterback ain't performing." (that's a made-up example. i should have written down what he really said.)

most interesting to me, however, was the mcdonald's commercial that interrupted the show. the final tag line was, "get much love," or, "get much beef," or something. at any rate, it used 'much' to introduce a noun. i can see with with a helping verb as in, "i don't get much beef," or with another modifier as in, "get much more beef," or as the subject of a sentence: "much beef was damaged in the creation of this burger." but as a speaker of standard white english, i don't think the mcdonald's slogan is a construction i would ever use. though i haven't found it in any of the lists of aave syntactic indicators i've consulted, i have an intuition that this is a feature of aave. the only other example i can think of is from sir mix-a-lot's 90's rap, 'baby got back': "little in the middle, but she got much back."

i'm hypothesizing that the use of aave by announcers and in commercials are two sides of the same coin. the acceptability of the dialect in a formal setting (a sports commentary show) is directly linked to its economic utility in commercials. i'm deliberately avoiding saying which one causes the other, because i think that's harder to demonstrate. does the acceptance of aave from announcers prove to networks that it will get their attention in commercials? does the existence of young aave speakers with disposable income motivate advertisers to target them and thus inspire networks to hire aave speakers? consumers, programmers and advertisers are connected in a complicated circuit that i certainly don't understand. the juice that flows through it, though, is certainly money.

i'm hardly saying this is a victory for aave and its proponents. it's important not to confuse commercial viability with other kinds of acceptance. for example, there's a long way to go from sports center to an executive board meeting. but this is a great demonstration of the fact that migrations of language, up or down, are always accompanied by social and economic change. as the dollar goes, so goes the language.


usable up?

one of my monikers in cyberspace, unsumupable, has stirred up an interesting controversy lately. a particular friend approves of it heartily, but comments, "shouldn't it be 'unsumableup'?" how can one be 'right' when making up a new word? how can we possibly decide? of course, linguistics might offer a solution...

so, what's going on here? we have ourselves a verb, "to sum" or maybe "to sum up," and a couple of affixes, "un-" and "-able," which make it into an adjective. our dispute is over whether "-able" should attach to "sum up" as though it were a single verb or just to "sum," with "up" acting as a modifier.

i'm not considering renaming myself--i've been unsumupable too long and it's got a much nicer rhythm than unsumableup. but the question brings up a point that concerns a whole slew of verbs. some of these are discussed in this older Invented Usage post. a lot of verbs take following prepositions that seem to drastically change their meaning. "come up with" is definitely different than "come with," for example. and "to break in" is different than "to break."

in some cases, a noun can go between the verb and preposition, as in "i broke the baseball glove in." though it also seems acceptable to say "i broke in the baseball glove."

it's also very clear that some suffixes do belong on the first half of these verb-preposition pairs. the past tense, for instance, is clearly 'summed up,' not 'sum upped' and we definitely say 'summing up' not 'sum upping.' i'm trying to think of other suffixes to test my intuition about where the would attach, but they all involve creating a new word that's subject to my friend's skepticism. i would say 'sumupper' for someone who sums things up, but he's argued for 'summer up.' the 'correctness' of these forms comes down to the intuitions of native speakers, and in this case speakers disagree! (we also noted that someone spontaneously generated the form 'breakable in'... -1 for me.)

another friend commented on that post cited above that maybe these prepositions might not be completely separate entities, but might function as part of the verb itself. they may act as separable affixes (which exist in other languages like German) that go after some suffixes and before others.

linguists identify two classes of affixes: derivational and inflectional. derivational affixes change the part of speech of a word. -able, for instance, changes a word from a verb to an adjective. inflectional affixes do not change the part of speech and include more grammatical markers such as the plural -s and the past tense -ed. for the purposes of this post, it's also very important to note that derivational suffixes always attach closer to the root of the word than inflectional suffixes do. for instance, from institute we can derive institution (-tion), institutional (-al) and institutionalize (-ize), and then inflect it as institutionalizes or institutionalized. the -s or -ed would never occur closer to the root than intervening derivational suffixes.

so if prepositions in these verbs act as suffixes, we should be able to categorize them as derivational or inflectional and then determine where -able should go in relation to them. prepostions do not change the part of speech of the verb, a feature they share with inflectional affixes. but they seem to have a larger impact on the meaning of the word than most inflections--they have a semantic, rather than a grammatical function, much like derivational affixes.

some examples that almost stumped my skeptic friend were the suffixes "-mania" and "-nik" (as in beatnik, one who is zealous about the affixed verb to the point of silliness). i like "sumupnik" and "sumupmania" and i don't think anyone could defend "sumnik up" or "sumania up." he was tempted, however, to say "upsumnik" and "upsumania," which i find surprisingly reasonable. this also seems to support the theory that these prepositions are somewhat like the separable german prefixes and are represented as prefixes in some way. we can even find some 'real' examples like "off-putting" as the adjective of "to put off." at the very least, i think our analysis should clearly include a notion of unity--some forms seem to require the verb and preposition to act as a unit, no matter how you unite them.

so maybe it's even more complicated than we previously thought! maybe we treat the verb and preposition as a unit in cases where we're turning it into a noun, separately when we're adding inflections and we can disagree about whether they're a unit or not when we're making them into an adjective. this kind of thing drives syntacticians nuts... to derive rules, they have to first agree on what seems right to them as native speakers. they often go "sumupnik, upsumnik, sumupnik, upsumnik. which sounds right to me?" i, for one, don't trust my intuition that much.

my guess is that when we decide to make a compound we've never heard before, we search for a familiar template to use when constructing it so that others will quickly understand the relationship we're trying to express between the parts. how do we decide which verbs should go in the same template? some possibilities: semantic or syntactic similarity--we look for the verb that takes the most similar objects and indirect objects and gives them the most similar relationship to the one we're trying to express; prosody--we think of a familiar rhythmic template that closely matches the new verb; frequency--we use whatever pattern occurs in the most verbs that we know and use often. or maybe it's some mixture of various methods. once a form has been used enough, though, it doesn't matter how it got started. it becomes convention--arbitrary and good enough, like all language.

usage, as always, offers another solution: a google search for "unsumupable" returns 38 hits (only the first four relate to me), while "unsumuableup" returns zero. draw your own conclusions.


Google bag!

So we get a lot of hits from google. Not surprisingly, our blog fails to answer many of these wayward searchers questions. For example, a high-degree of Invented Usage visitors seem to have some fascination with Mango, Chris Kattan's character from Saturday Night Live. In my infinite magnanimousness, I'm going to present these erstwhile readers the information they seek:

(1) A one-time reader from New York would like to know the definition of the phrase "that's what I'm talking about".

"That's what I'm talking about!!!" - Frank Costanza

(2) A reader from Canada would like to find a sentence containing the word "profusely".

Here it goes: After watching Alanis Morissette perform the Fergie song "My Humps", Scott bled profusely from his ears and eyes.

(3) One person would like to know when Google was invented. Here you go:

www.google.com was born on September 14, 1997. (When this writer was Thirteen.)

(4) A reader would apparently like some poems to get high with.

My advice:

Step 1: Drive to local bookstore.

Step 2: Locate the poetry section. This will typically be quite difficult, so I recommend asking a Sales Associate for directions. They'll likely have to ask the manager. Use this time to twiddle your thumbs or browse the Political Science section in order to appear hip.

Step 3: Upon locating the poetry section, browse the anthologies. What you're looking for is an anthology made with thin paper and one that preferably contains the work of Emily Dickinson. A Norton Anthology of Poetry would be optimal.

Step 4: Purchase the book or not. It is unlikely anyone would notice its absence. (If you've located the Norton Anthology of Poetry, just steal it. That thing is f**king expensive!)

Step 5: If you've not already done so, contact your neighborhood drug dealer to secure the necessary quantity of marijuana.

Step 6: Tear out pages from your book and use them to roll a joint. You'll require some kind of biodegradable adhesive for this.

Step 7: Smoke and repeat as necessary.

Well, that's it with reader requests for now! I'll be sure to roll out these answers periodically. If we can't be relevant to 80% of our audience, then what's the point?


thethesisis full of errors!

greetings, gentle readers! i apologize, once again, for the long hiatus. this post will give a brief preview of the fruits of the labor that has kept me from blogging ere these long weeks. my thesis about typos is nearing completion, and, believe it or not, i actually have some interesting conclusions to show for it! what follows is a synopsis of what my thesis will become over the next couple of weeks... *knocks on wood*.

many of the studies of typos i read are inadequate to describe naturalistic typing (that is, speech over IM, for instance), because they test people doing transcription typing, or they gather their corpora (sets of linguistic material--in this case, errors) from published works. neither of these data sets is appropriate for comparing the errors made in typing to the errors made in speaking; published typos are very selective because they are only those that escaped the notice of several proof-readers and editors. transcription studies don't work because they involve a perceptual element, reading, that a) doesn't occur in speech and b) might change the types of errors made in ways that are, as yet, unpredictable.

so i brought 20 undergrads into the lab and made them (paid them to) have IM conversations. they used software that recorded each of their keystrokes including the backspace key. These 10 conversations generated almost 350 typos, including things that were clearly 'edits' (planned utterances that were deleted before being sent). My spreadsheet called 'Typos that Matter' contains 192 rows. These are typos that involve individual letters or sounds. They will be the focus of my study!

one of the main observations made about speech errors is their striking regularity. for example, in speech, consonants only slip with other consonants and vowels only slip with other vowels. Gary Dell, one of the big speech error guys, uses a set of four rules, including this consonant-vowel category effect, to identify 'human-like' speech errors. Other rules include the phonotactic regularity effect--speech errors do not cause combinations of letters that are illegal in the language being spoken. For example, in English, you can't begin a word with 'tk,' so that combination never occurs at the beginning of a word as a result of an error.

it's immediately apparent that typos do not obey these same regularities. adjacent letters often slip, regardless of whether they are consonants or vowels, and illegal combinations occur fairly frequently.

another important difference concerns the volume of errors in speech versus typing. I brought half as many participants into the lab to have conversations over the phone. they produced only 5 Errors that Matter. the ratio of speech to typing errors in this setting is something on the order of 1 to 20.

both of the above facts are evidence that typos occur because of very different processes than speech errors do. however, the fact that made me want to study this in the first place is the similarity of some typos to speech errors. there is a set of typos that behave almost the same way as speech errors--these errors are of a specific type known as 'non-contextual substitutions.' in these cases, a letter is removed completely and replaced with another letter that does not exist in the surrounding utterance. "fright" typed for "bright" is a good example of this, whereas "rbight" for "bright" is a contextual exchange.

when i examined only single letter non-contextual substitution errors, a striking pattern emerged: they follow Dell's rules very very closely, almost entirely, as speech errors do. except one rule to which i'll return later.

since one class of errors follows cognitive constraints while others seem to ignore them completely, i plan to propose that there are two separate mechanisms responsible for typos. non-contextual substitutions (and perhaps other types of errors) are caused by errors in planning and internal speech--the same things that cause spoken errors. exchanges and other types of errors occur after planning at a lower level of processing and aren't susceptible to the filters or structures that make phonotactic and consonant-vowel category violations impossible. that's pretty neat!

the Dell rule that non-contextual substitutions do violate with abandon is known as the initialness effect. in speech errors involving consonants, the first consonant in a word is much more likely to be involved in an error than consonants at the end or middle of words are. the same is not true for typing errors! in fact, of the 22 non-contextual substitutions involving consonants that i've checked for consistency with Dell's rules, 16 violate the initialness effect. this is a striking effect that might point to a major difference in processing and planning across the two media.

so, not only are there different articulatory problems with typing than there are with speech, but perhaps the medium in which we do our articulation actually effects the way we plan and retrieve speech. i would try to claim this as empirical evidence that contemporary media theorists are correct--that communication technologies effect our cognition in a profound way--but that's a lot to say in 20 pages, and linguists don't take kindly to much of my favorite media theory...

look for a future post on plans for further research!


a new get rich quick scheme

Hey kids. Being something of a sponge at the moment, I've been nursing a variety of ways to turn a quick buck. My latest such idea is a children's book, which--in my estimation--would be near and dear to the philosophy of Invented Usage. Currently, the project is nameless. So for now I'm referring to it as the "A-Z Kid's Book Fake Dictionary Type Thing." By now, mind you, I mean right now. If you ask me about it, I'll probably call it something else.

Here's the premise. A book of words A-Z that are misused but not illogically so. Here's an example:

So you've got a picture of a portly, mean looking man cutting the hair of an apparently distraught child. Barbarous is the word, but here it means to take on the qualities of a barber. You get the idea, I'm sure. If you're interested in checking out the rest of my sketches, I have A through I posted online OVER HERE!!!

For now, this is my get rich quick scheme. I've even found an artist to illustrate it! If it doesn't work, I've been pondering starting a Fantasy WNBA league. With all the publicity Don Imus has been bringing to women's basketball, it's a guaranteed cash crop. Who wouldn't want to make friendly wagers on the trials and tribulations of nappy haired HOSsiers?


usage-based douging

one of my main complaints with formal stystems of syntax and semantics is that, if and when they acknowledge the importance of meaning in usage, they treat it as a concrete and knowable object. for instance, in my syntax class, we learned that a word is (presumably this means 'is stored in the brain as') an ordered triple, , consisting of x, the sound of the word; y, the syntactic category of the word (is it a noun, a mass noun, a verb? does it require a direct object?); and z, the meaning of the word and its logical relationship to other words.

this approach creates some fairly obvious problems, especially if one rejects chomsky's competence/performance distinction and acknowledges that people have disputes and confusion about what words mean all the time.

a great example (and a hilarious invented usage!) is the verb 'to doug,' which has been widely circulated in my co-ed house here at brown. it's a humorous adaptation of existing linguistic material (namely Doug's name), and I think it orginated in the passive form: "you've been douged!".

i don't provide the definition or the exact origin story because these are both somewhat disputed. there are at least two origin stories floating around (and I personally believe the meaning may have been added as an afterthought to the utterance anyway). this is a pretty common case in normal language, too. consider all the idioms we use daily without knowing their origins (let the cat out of the bag? what!?). in addition, there are certain fine points of usage that people don't agree on. for example, can only Doug doug? does douging have to be an unintentional act? and so on.

now, for all this fuzziness and lack of formal definition, there are some amazing consistencies in the usage of 'to doug.' i presented some house members with fill-in-the-blank sentences, and their answers were very elucidating. for instance:
"He ____ her too often for comfort."
- dougs, douged
"Tom ate all of Dick's food without realizing it was Dick's, though he knew it was not what he, Tom, had ordered. What a prototypical _____!"
- douging
"In fact, Tom engages in ____ almost daily!"
- douging, dougage, douggery

so, how can we account for both the inconsistencies and the consistencies with one theory? should we, like chomsky, ignore the 'anomalous' utterances that don't fit with our rigid structural categorization of 'to doug'? should we declare speakers who don't know the 'real' meaning incompetent, and imagine a perfect, ideal speaker who has a perfect representation of the meaning of 'to doug' in her head? how can such a 'real' meaning exist for a word that was made up mere months ago?

this is why usage-based theories of grammar are so freakin' sweet! if we appeal to actual observable facts about usage, a lot of these issues fall out very neatly indeed.

a word's meaning is a function of the way we (average speakers!) use the word. scratch that--everything (syntax, spelling, pronunciation, meaning) are functions of usage!

that is, i heard a friend say 'you've been douged!', and because i am a native english speaker with experience with sentence frames like this, i knew 'doug'--regardless of its meaning--must be a verb that can take a direct object. then i saw a friend's t-shirt (this is a real thing), that says 'See Doug. See Doug doug. Doug Doug, doug!' and understood that 'to doug' is a regular verb just like the other verbs i've seen in that type of sentence my whole life. then, i heard a friend say 'i'm going to doug you!' and another friend say 'you can't--if it's intentional, it's not douging,' and i understood something new about the meaning of 'to doug' and the appropriate contexts for its use. on the back of the aforementioned t-shirt, it says 'you've been douged!', so i assume the past perfect (or whatever) form of the verb is spelled with one 'g.' enough counter-examples, or a counter-example from a particularly reputable source, might lead me to change this mental representation, though. (at this time, the t-shirt is the most reputable source available.)

when we learn a new word, we don't learn it all at once as an ordered triple, and its meaning isn't necessarily part of the original package. what we learn about words is ways that they might be used. these ways include syntactic and phonetic contexts as well as real-world contexts including socio-linguistic factors like social acceptability, formality levels, and so on. meaning falls out as a result of contextualized usage. we can explicitly define the word, as is done in dictionaries, but this is a) not necessary (as in the case of douging) and b) it still constitutes a particular type of context. we never--NEVER EVER--encounter words without a context that tells us something about their acceptability!

usage-based theories can empirically use statistical distributions to explain certain facts about language. for instance, the mass noun form of the word, 'douggery' or 'dougage', is not exactly disputed, but it's generally not that well known. this might be because it's very infrequent. we would expect this form to be less stable, less well-defined and more prone to change over time, because speakers have a weak representation of it in their brains. they haven't stored up enough examples to know how to use it properly in all situations. the phrase 'you've been douged', however, occurs very commonly and is therefore unlikely to be changed or used differently. spelling is another good example--there aren't enough instances of the written word yet to know whether one 'g' or two is more acceptable.

people can and do make mistakes in language. this is how language changes, and why we are sometimes not understood. usage-based grammar can explain both our competencies and our incompetencies using a very simple apparatus: we store and compare each example of a word we encounter. in addition, it explains our messing-up without appealing to a hard and fast prescriptive distinction between right and wrong. instead, different tokens of the same word are simply more or less acceptable.

an invented usage like 'to doug' is a great example because of its unsolidified state, but in some ways it's just like any other word; the same arguments i've made here can be applied to all language in general. now, go out there and try not to doug one another!


what are you gonna do with that degree, open a linguistics shop?

Alan M. Perlman, language expert, laughs in the face of the uselessness of a linguistics degree. He's a forensic linguist specially trained to help attorneys interpret the law to the semantic letter and appear as an expert witness on matters of authorship. His website says "We all leave linguistic fingerprints on everything we write. If they are there, Alan will find them."

He's a linguistic superhero! Or he's at least like one of those guys on CSI. (Incidentally, I found Alan's website because it was an advertisement in my gmail screen; it ran above an email about my linguistics experiment.) Check out this page, which contains a curriculum vitae that lists a linguistics B.A. from Brown University. It also lists the legal applications of his varied experiences with language and linguistics which include speech writing, teaching, and writing a dissertation at the University of Chicago on code-switching. See also Alan's writings about why linguists can hold up their heads as useful members of society!

And Mr. Perlman is not alone. The intriguing domain name 'thetext.com' is owned by the Forensic Linguistics Institute, and LanguageHat wrote briefly about the phenomena in October 2003.

One envisions a cozy office on the main street of a small town (although Alan M. Perlman's address is listed as Highland Park, IL). One might assemble not only forensic linguists but also translators and advisers for a whole range of professions; advertisers, politicians, editors, software designers and diplomats could all use a little technically and legally sound advice about language now and again.

Look out world. We know you've held the smoking gun of language, and now we're dusting for fingerprints!


where have i been?

i've wondered it myself. Sadly, the world of actual linguistics has left me little time for the forum that kept me interested in linguistics when 'the establishment' wouldn't touch my sophomore butt with a ten-foot pole! (see this guy's website for even bolder rantings and his self-published play, 'cyprus,' by briggs)Link
there are a lot of interesting posts floating around in my head, but i've got no time to do them justice these days. so this one will be an explanation of what i do with my time and what it makes me think about writing.

first and foremost, my thesis! i'm about to start collecting data on a linguistics project that's been near and dear to my heart for a while now. i'll post more about it after i have some data so i don't risk biasing friends who might be subjects. it's about language and technology--suffice it to say i'm psyched!

other classes are good too. in introduction to linguistic anthropology, i have to record the speech of a local speech community. i've picked the CS department. (also, thanks to Dave for writing the software for my above mentioned thesis. i have my own software! yay!)

then, i'm taking speech prosody. we're studying pitch contours (how people raise and lower the tone of their voice). again with the software: i downloaded this great program called 'praat' (available for all operating systems--just google 'praat'), that lets you manipulate and visualize sounds in all kinds of interesting ways. some friends i and had fun reversing our voices and trying to speak backwards.

last but certainly not least, i'm taking an mcm (modern culture and media) class called 'media archaeology: information, discourse, networks.' it's right up my alley, focusing on the interaction of technology and... well, kind of everything... but let's say artistic genre for now. we're reading a lot of great theory (Vannevar Bush, Marshall McLuhan, Foucault) and looking at neat web art. see especially 'dakota' by young-hae chang. is it a poem? is it a movie? no one knows! its' web art! (make sure your computer's sound is on!)

then, my job at the vocab lab (or 'voca blab.' ha!) is at an important stage. we've started bringing in subjects to take a first draft of our vocabulary test, which will one day be part of a national literacy exam. i've been spending a couple of hours a day testing subjects and preparing software (boy! that word again! i'm so technological these days). i'll be writing an article for the indy about the process of bias and sensitivity review that all educational materials have to undergo these days. i've been thinking about the issue a lot, especially since i've been involved first hand and read part of diane ravitch's 'the language police' over break. keep an eye out for that one!
unfortunately, it's another blog post that's been lost to the real world.

in my free time, i've been involved with rush at the frat (co-ed), where people do all kinds of interesting linguistic innovation. the most recent example is 'douging,' which, perhaps more so than the rest of these blurbs, definitely merits a post all of its own. stay tuned, faithful inventors!


a tangential blog

one can never have enough blogs. so here's another.


|, or a tale of semiotic mystery

i've been seeing this symbol for a few months now: |, and wondering what it is. i've mostly encountered it on facebook, and never took the time to record where it occurred (this post would be a lot better and more professional if i had).

for some reason it struck me as being exceptionally meaningful. it tended to occur in photo captions, and in correspondences (like wall posts) between boyfriends and girlfriends. i, being me, thought 'how cool! people have taken this apparently meaningless symbol, |, and imbued it with all this romantic meaning. it clearly functions as a sign! what a great invented usage. i better blog about that!'

so i set out to discover the root of the meaning of |.

turns out you can't search for punctuation. (this is also the reason i didn't have the guts to title this post simply, '|'.) smilies (:-D) are also unsearchable. and, let's be honest, google is really my only resource for these kinds of things. i was at a loss!

i did try wikipedia's article on internet slang, to no avail, and found this interesting internet-slang-eliminating dictionary, but it proved just as useless in this case.

but then i consulted a friend who is wise in the ways of pop culture. she immediately asked me if i use firefox to view the facebook posts i mentioned above. i do, in fact, use firefox. she informed me that firefox misinterprets a certain piece of internet slang as |. what i should have been seeing was the internet symbol, '< 3', which some browsers and instant messaging programs display as an actual heart: <3. (i suppose that will look like | if you use firefox!)

at first i was a little disappointed that people were sticking to this iconic representation rather than branching out into the more abstract as i'd first assumed. but really, it's pretty interesting that i was able to glean such an accurate idea of its meaning just from the context of the symbol's use. this just goes to show that | could quite plausibly function as a symbol of love. it would just require that readers be exposed to a couple of instances in which they could gather that meaning from context.

this has already happened to '< 3', which doesn't look so much like a heart, and the standard drawn heart that doesn't really look like the anatomical heart, and the anatomical heart that doesn't actually have much connection to love itself. these connections are already conventionally defined and therefore easy to use quickly. but they're conventionally defined nonetheless, the way i thought | was!

score one for the arbitrariness of signs!


Behold! the new digital idiocy

Hark! My newest digital project is beginning to take form as it shall for some time. Ladies and Gentlemen without a safety net: I shall now amputate. I shall now contort.

Click on the gate to enter "the new digital idiocy".