Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Daily Fail fails to ask a linguist (again)

It's no surprise when a newspaper publishes an article about language and fails to ask a linguist. They rarely do. It's even less of a surprise when the newspaper is the Daily Mail and the 'article' is actually just a summary of a website (note to newspapers: this is not journalism. It's lazy. Especially when you get to it two weeks after the rest of the internet has already seen it).

This 'article' summarises a reddit thread for us, which is actually quite handy because reddit threads are horrible things to read. The questioner wanted to know what the hardest English words to pronounce are. Here's the top ten, as reported by the Mail:

  1. Worcestershire
  2. Specific
  3. Squirrel
  4. Brewery 
  5. Phenomenon
  6. Derby
  7. Regularly
  8. February
  9. Edited
  10. Heir

The Mail then helpfully made some very condescending comments about how specific and squirrel are 'apparently easy' and brewery and edited 'seem rather straightforward to the average Brit', while February and phenomenon are 'notorious tongue twisters even for native speakers'.

So far, so utterly, utterly dull and vacuous.

Among the linguistically interesting things to note here is the fact that there are two types of difficulty: hard to articulate, and hard to predict. Derby is very easy to say for most people, but it's hard to predict its pronunciation from its spelling. Similarly heir and, of course, Worcestershire, which has the further problem of being long and daunting.

On the other hand, specific, squirrel, brewery, February and edited are all pronounced more or less like they're spelt, but it's actually saying them without stumbling that can prove tricky. They have consonant clusters like [skw], and lots of [r] sounds and 'glides' [w] that occur between vowels, making them hard to keep control of. February causes native speakers less trouble than the Mail would have you believe, because we don't try to pronounce both those [r] sounds.

[r] in general crops up a lot here, probably because a lot of the contributors to the list speak a first language like Chinese where [r] and [l] are not two different sounds, but rather two 'versions' of a sound ('allophones'). English contrasts these sounds (so read and lead are different words), but doesn't contrast the two 'k' sounds in car and key, for instance (so you can't the difference unless you're trained to do so). If your language treats [r] and [l] as being as similar as those English considers those two 'k' sounds, you can imagine the difficulty regularly or squirrel is going to cause you.

Likewise, edited contains a string of short, similar vowels separated by [d] or [t]. Those two sounds are very similar to each other, differing only in terms of whether they're 'voiced' or not ([d] is, [t] isn't) and again, many languages don't contrast these sounds. In many English dialects (e.g. US English), they are actually pronounced more or less the same in this word. You end up with some sequence of rapid tapping of the tongue against the back of the teeth which is over almost before you realise you've begun it.

(Incidentally, no one in real life pronounces the name of the sauce as Worcestershire - everyone calls it 'Worcester sauce'. Apparently this is frowned upon by the company that makes it, but it's true.)

Thursday, 26 February 2015

I'm a linguist however I correct mistakes

I teach, among other things, first-year syntax seminars. I've found that this year's cohort are pretty good at knowing the basic parts of speech but one of the things we do at degree level is learn how to identify nouns, verbs and so on based on their behaviour and question mis-classifications. The other day, I said English really only has three conjunctions: and, or and but. (Actually this isn't totally accurate but those are the common ones, I think. Note that I'm only referring to what are sometimes called 'coordinating conjunctions' - subordinating ones are another thing.) One of my students asked whether however isn't a conjunction as well.

This is an excellent question. And as with most excellent questions, the answer is 'yes and no'. I was suddenly, in a 9am seminar, suffering from severe tiredness, faced with the descriptivist academician's paradox.

This is one of the things that is mentioned time and again when lecturers compare notes on common writing mistakes in student essays: however used as a conjunction. Here's an example:
This argument is very persuasive, however I believe the premise is false. 
This sentence could be written perfectly grammatically with but instead of however as follows:
This argument is very persuasive, but I believe the premise is false. 
With however, it's a comma splice and at best, clumsy, and at worst confusing. If you're desperate to use the word however, because you're keen to use polysyllabic words wherever you can, the following is acceptable:
 This argument is very persuasive; however, I believe the premise is false.
 So far, this is not linguistics so much as standard essay-marker's griping. The linguistics comes now. As linguists, we are descriptive, no matter how prescriptive we are as essay-markers. For that reason, we apply writing rules in what I think is a more sensible manner than many other subjects do (in my former life as a writing tutor I heard of history lecturers with flat-out bans on completely innocuous things for no discernible reason). We allow things that others might outlaw as long as it's done well. Lately, for instance, I've noticed that I no longer care about contracted forms in essays, as long as the apostrophes are correct and the style is otherwise formal and reads well - correcting this might lead to stilted, lumpy writing. We allow first-person pronouns (why on earth not?) as long as students don't use them to say things like 'I believe' (cf. my example above). Passive voice is perfectly fine as long as it's not used to pad out the essay with extra words.

So what of however? It all depends. Is the error in my example above a punctuation error, in which case it most definitely is an error and deserves the red pen, or is it a reflection of a change in language which will be permitted before long? The only way we could check would be to listen to the intonation. Is there a semicolon break preceding it and a comma break following it in speech? If so, it's wrongly punctuated. If not, perhaps I'll have to learn to live with it. Unfortunately, this isn't really a feature of everyday speech: it's formal style, and formal style is highly influenced by written style. If that written style is wrong to start with, we have a chicken and egg problem on our hands.

Monday, 16 February 2015

Language, Gender and the Power of Stereotypes

Our Head of Department, Amalia Arvaniti, gave an inaugural lecture last week and we livetweeted it. Here's the Storified version, complete with my sarky comments.

Thursday, 12 February 2015


It's more and more common for linguists of all types to use quantitative methods in their research. This used to be something that only certain people did, because it was the nature of the method/subject matter etc. Now I increasingly get the feeling that those who don't are seen by some people as somehow not doing work that is as valid. I'm still pretty well in the theoretical linguistics camp (which doesn't mean we don't use data, interestingly, but it's not quantitative data). This means that my ability to wrangle statistical packages and interpret complex facts is close to nonexistent, but even I could spot some clangers in a recent episode of More Or Less (a BBC World Service programme).

First, there was an item about the apparent rapid increase in antisemitic attacks. The organisation Campaign Against Antisemitism had carried out a survey which revealed a worryingly high rate of British Jewish people being concerned about their long-term future in this country. It's not in question that there is antisemitism to some extent, but the presenter, Tim, noted that it's hard to sample the Jewish population in a fully representative way in this country. In response to Tim asking the reasonable question 'How do you know your respondents aren't disproportionately worried about antisemitism?', the spokesman for CAA said 'If you look at the results, they represent a range of views'. Well. Maybe so, but I think it's quite obvious that you can't judge how representative your sample is just from the responses of your own sample, if you don't have anything to compare it to.

Then there was an item in which someone (I think a Manchester police spokesperson but I could be wrong) talked about 60 men found in canals over the last few years and put this high number of deaths down to an as yet unidentified killer. The programme's researchers looked into how many deaths from accidental drownings one might expect over a similar period. When this chap was told that one would expect 61 accidental drownings, he said this: 'You can't ignore the statistics - well if you want to ignore the statistics...' and went on to speculate further about these deaths being linked. But it's him who is ignoring the statistics, in this case, and speculating on the basis of misleading numbers.

I find More Or Less and similar 'behind the numbers' things really interesting, because I'm fascinated by how easy it is to confuse ourselves and others with statistics. I remember one particular example from Bang Goes The Theory where Dr Yan demonstrated (with bacon sandwiches) how nearly everyone fails to spot that 'bacon increases your risk of bowel cancer by 20%' and 'bacon increases your risk of bowel cancer from 5% to 6%' are making exactly the same claim. We are apparently very bad at this kind of thing.

Friday, 30 January 2015

More pronoun fun

As an update to the pronoun post, here's a good alternative pronoun set from Futurama, brought to my attention by Jonathan Kasstan.

However, despite the pronouns shkle and so on being required because Yivo is gender-neutral, there's a replacement for each of him and her: shklim and shkler.
Yivo is the lover of all beings male and female. But Yivo has no gender. Thus Yivo has proclaimed that instead of he or she we are to use the word shkle. And instead of him or her we are to use the word shklim or shkler.

Specification of pronouns

Sigh. Another silly article. It discusses the perfectly valid point that it would be good to have a gender-neutral pronoun so that people who identify as neither male nor female do not feel excluded, but then it says:
"For those now considering commenting to suggest that there’s a perfectly fine existing neutral pronoun – “they” – remember that pronouns must match both gender and number. So in the case of single individuals, it’s grammatically inaccurate." 
WRONG. As we know, what's grammatical is what speakers find to be grammatical, including singular 'they' for most people. (Let's also overlook the fact that in saying that 'pronouns must match... gender' it precisely contradicts the point of the article, which is that we want a pronoun that isn't specified for gender.) Fortunately, someone in the comments section was there to help them out:
"If pronouns have to agree on number and gender why aren't you campaigning for new words to separate you (singular) from you (plural)?" 
The technical term for this is 'underspecification': forms might be specified for number, gender, and person (first/second/third), and if any of these is not present, it's underspecified for that feature and it can 'match' with anything. So, for instance, we might say that you is not specified for number. In fact, it probably is, as it has to occur with the plural form of the verb (were rather than was, for instance), just like they does. And then of course in French the pronoun used to refer to 'you (singular)' is either singular or plural, depending on whether one is being polite (tu/vous) with appropriate singular/plural verb agreement. 

This is a much more sensible article on the matter.

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Two wrongs don't make a right

I saw this cartoon tweeted recently:

It's the old chestnut that a double negative actually makes a positive, and if you say the non-standard phrase 'I didn't do nothing' you are in fact saying that you did something. It's used to try to shame or humiliate people into using the Standard English single negative: 'I didn't do anything'.

This is quite silly. Generally, linguists point out that lots and lots of other languages have double negatives as the standard form, and so it's ridiculous to suggest that it's somehow illogical. Italian is yer go-to example here, and for some reason it's always about telephoning: 'non ha telefonato nessuno', or 's/he hasn't telephoned nobody'. Jack Chambers has pointed out that as most non-standard English varieties have double negation (more technically called negative concord), perhaps it is in some way more 'natural' than the artificial standard of single negation that is imposed on us.

But even more than this, it's not even true that a double negative will be interpreted as a positive. It can be, if you give it the right intonation. But it's a very specific intonation with a pretty strong emphasis on the 'nothing'. Without that, there's simply no way that it can possibly mean 'I did something'. Anyone at all would interpret it was meaning what it's meant to mean. They might be a pedant about it and pretend not to understand, but they definitely would. And even in a criminal trial, where testimony has to be unambiguous, I don't think that they would try to hang the crime on the guy for using this syntactic construction.