Friday, 14 October 2016

Quite Black

I've been meaning to write a post about quite for quite a while. This is as a result of Google announcing a phone. In this country it comes in just two (boring) colours, but elsewhere it comes in three: Quite Black, Very Silver, and Really Blue.

At first, I found Quite Black a funny name - I'm not sure why, but the understatement of it seemed amusing. But! Google is American and there is definitely some difference in the meaning of quite in UK vs US usage. The latter two make me think that Google intends quite in its meaning of very or completely. We can use it like that here, although it sounds a bit old-fashioned or posh:
That's quite enough of your nonsense, young lady! I'm quite sure you wouldn't speak like that to your mother! 
So it isn't an understatement; they mean that it's very black, or completely black. Disappointing.

Lynne Murphy has (of course) written about this difference, here and here. She points out that the difference is 'very much' (AmE) vs 'not so much' (BrE), or that it strengthens the force of an adjective in American English but weakens it in British English.

I don't know know quite how I would characterise it in British English. It does weaken the force, and it does mean 'not so much', but so much, as always, depends on the tone. How you say it can make It's quite black mean that it's waaaaay too black (sort of rise-fall intonation - I'm not a phonetician, sorry) or that it's really a very good level of blackness (rising intonation). Of course, this is what intonation does, and to some extent you get this without quite, but it adds this ambiguity. In both cases, it means that there is a high level of blackness. With yet another intonation (strong emphasis on quite), it can also mean that it's relatively black, but not as black as you would hope.

Either way, even though the 'high level of blackness' meanings are very accessible in British English, we interpret the phrase Quite Black as an understatement, a weakening of the force of black, and not as a strengthener.

If I was Google, I'd have released it in Purest Green:

Thursday, 29 September 2016

Linguistics of 'Arrival'

In this post I slightly spoil some of the funny bits and a lot of the linguistics in the film, though probably not the crucial bits, I don't think. Stop reading now if you want to play it safe.

Excitingly, I managed to get invited to a screening of Arrival last week, a good six weeks before it's due out on general release. I went with a handful of other linguists, so we enjoyed the complimentary booze with a bunch of (we assume) critics and then settled down to watch a film that we were somewhat trepidatious about. The main character in this film is a linguist, and this doesn't always give a terribly accurate impression of our business. However, some of my companions had read the short story it's based on, The story of your life by Ted Chiang, and were hopeful that the film would do this story justice.

It did, as it happens, and I'd recommend it if you like thoughtful scifi with aliens, stern US military types and a romantic side-plot. Personally I'm not a huge fan of all these things; the romantic side-plots can do one as far as I'm concerned, but in this film it worked well and contributed to a really clever twist to the story.

Right. David Adger has written a nice post about the language of the aliens and how 'alien' it really is. I'm going to focus on a few points where linguistics was a focus of the film and how it was treated.

The language in the film, Heptapod (the aliens have seven tentacle-feet things), is a visual language. There is a spoken language as well, but the linguist protagonist, Dr Louise Banks, decides that the visual language is the one she can work with to communicate with them. I can't remember why she thinks that, now, but it probably would have been harder to synthesise the spoken language to communicate with them (and she certainly couldn't produce it herself). (Note to self: don't try and write film reviews after having seen them and then drunk lots of wine a week previously.)

This language is formed by the heptapods squirting a sort of squid-ink-type substance in circular shapes with irregular edges, like coffee cup rings. These irregular bits are not actually irregular, of course, as they are what conveys the meaning. Each ring is a sentence (I don't know if we found out if they have complex sentences, with more than one clause). These symbols (the Independent calls them a 'complex form of hieroglyphs', though I'm not sure why) are holistic: they're produced as a whole, not made up of obvious parts. This is important to the story, as it is representative (in fact the cause) of the way the heptapods see the world: time is non-linear to them. However, they're not inseparable. In translating the language, with a good deal of computer analysis, the scientists identify tons of nodes in the rings that map onto meaning. When Louise talks to the heptapods, she creates rings from four or five segments. Clearly, there is combinatorial stuff going on here. I think the story talks more about how it works, so I'll know more about that once I've read it.

I liked the way Louise and her job are portrayed, for the most part. She is called a 'linguist', not any other job title, and she really is one. Near the start of the film, we see her giving a lecture on comparative romance linguistics. She employs what are, as far as I'm aware, linguistic fieldwork methods in her efforts to understand the heptapod language (she proceeds very quickly, but maybe that's because she has the US military and its computers behind her). Linguistics is referred to as a science and compared favourably to maths at one point by the theoretical physicists (not sure what he was there for).

***slight spoilers***
At one point, she told the kangaroo story, which Wikipedia relates like this:
Cook and Banks were exploring the area when they happened upon the animal. They asked a nearby local what the creatures were called. The local responded "Kangaroo", meaning "I don't understand you", which Cook took to be the name of the creature.
The row of linguists sat in stony silence at the punchline. However, when she reveals it not to be a true story a moment later, we had the last laugh.
***spoiler over***

Some things were a little bit less accurate. For one thing, her house was amazing. What mid-career female linguist is paid that much money? Perhaps she was well-paid for the work she'd done when seconded to the army previously.

She also speaks all the languages. I mentioned at the start that she was lecturing in comparative romance linguistics. Perhaps this isn't her specialism; heaven knows I lecture in all kinds of things that I don't know an awful lot about. But we do know that she was able to help the military with some Farsi interpreting. When the Colonel turns up on her doorstep and asks 'Do you speak Mandarin?', the answer is apparently 'yes'. There's possibly an explanation of this later in the film, but at that point it feels like a very lucky coincidence and playing into the stereotype of what linguists do (i.e. speak all the languages).

At one point, it seems that she is going to be unsuitable for the work they want her to do. She asks them if they're going to see some other guy next (let's call him Linguist B as I didn't make notes) and says, 'Ask him the Sanskrit word for war and its translation' (which as my colleague noted doesn't make much sense, but I guess I know what they meant). He comes back and says that Linguist B said it means something violent, and what does she say it means? She says 'a desire for more cows'. A quick internet search shows that this is generally known, although I'm afraid I lack the desire to fact-check it. This plays into the Sapir-Whorfianism that runs throughout the film, whereby language shapes the way you think. It doesn't actually make much sense to say the Sanskrit word for 'war' means 'a desire for more cows'. Either it literally means that but is used to mean 'war', in which case it means 'war', or else it isn't the word for 'war'. Sanskrit speakers definitely have the ability to wage war, so it's not that they don't have a concept of it due to the lack of a word for it.

But still. At one point she is explaining why she needs to go through a ton of basic stuff like pronouns when all they want to know is 'What is your purpose on earth' and we get a great linguistic explanation of everything that's involved in understanding and therefore answering that question. We also get a nice 'problem of translation' point when it hinges on whether a certain word means 'weapon' or 'tool' (and the answer to which it is is pretty cool by the way).

I'm happy with it, as a linguist and as a scifi fan. Go and see it. It's good.

Aside: Reviews are less linguistically well-informed. Apart from the aforementioned use of 'hieroglyphs' in the Independent, the Guardian says this:
Why, you ask, did they not approach Noam Chomsky, with his understanding of “deep structure” in language? Perhaps Prof Chomsky did not care to help America’s military-intelligence complex.
I assume they've said this just to make a sort of political joke, but this is such a stupid question it should never have been asked. I also have an understanding of 'deep structure' in language, having studied it for 12 years or so now, and I can assure you it doesn't give you a magical ability to understand unfamiliar languages. If anything, it might make him less able to work with a language that may not conform to this deep structure (see David's post linked earlier). Linguistic fieldwork is a fiendishly difficult task that takes years of training and practice to do well, and it's something that Chomsky has not specialised in. In fact, he's often criticised for doing precisely the opposite.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Nocuous stuff

I saw this lovely example of a backformation in my twitter timeline the other day: the use of 'nocuous', the opposite of 'innocuous'. It's an existing word and so perhaps not technically a backformation, but I'd put money on the writer having backformed it.

Thursday, 8 September 2016


I'm at LAGB all this week. I'll attempt to write some kind of post about what's been going on at some point when I'm less conferenced-out, but in the meantime, this happened.

At our committee meeting, I was reporting on my Membership Secretary duties. At one point, discussing how I'd been 'lapsing' members who hadn't renewed, I said I might have 'over-lapsed' some people (i.e. lapsed their account erroneously). Later on, I mentioned that people who register for the conference who aren't already members are 'forcibly enmembered'. By this point, people were noticing my neologisms and pointed it out. I said 'sorry; I over-morphologised'.

As I'm sure you'll appreciate, this amused me no end.

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Bear cats aren't cats. Or bears.

This tweet appeared in my timeline today:
All of this is useful and important information, and it's cool how things get to be named things that they aren't, but the linguistic point I wanted to make is in relation to the last one.

Each of these has two parts to its name, either an adjective plus a noun (slow+worm, horny+toad) or two nouns (killer+whale, bear+cat). (I've analysed 'killer' as a noun here, but I suppose it might be an adjective too - it doesn't much matter.) In each case, it's the second part that tells you the type of thing that it is (or isn't): a worm, a toad, a whale, a cat. That's because when you put two things together in language, you (nearly) always have one that's the 'head' and the other part modifies the head in some way. Here, it tells you what type of worm/toad/whale it is: a slow one, a horny one, a killer one. This is a general fact of English: the Right-Hand Head Rule.

This means that even when the two parts of a compound are nouns and either could theoretically be the head (a bear cat could be a type of cat or a type of bear), we interpret the right-hand element as the head. This is evident from the wording of the tweet, where we're told they're not a type of cat, and the fact that they're also not bears is added as a humorous parenthetical, just in case we were tempted to think that.

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

The object of sleep

A while back, I wrote a post about what appeared to be a causative alternation with the verb wait: I said They wait you in the bookshop. In that post, I said 'sleep doesn't have an object', and this is true: it's the prototypical example linguists use of an intransitive verb (i.e. one that doesn't have an object).

Language is a flexible beast, though, and you can get things like I slept the whole night through, where one might argue that the whole night is an object. But this isn't so clear cut, as you might prefer to say that the whole night through is an adverbial phrase modifying the verb slept, the same as if it was I slept all night or I slept for ages.

However, last week I heard an example where sleep definitely did have an object, and it was the same sort of construction as the wait example in my earlier post. I was on holiday at a folk festival with some friends, including an 11-year-old boy. His mum commented on the fact that he'd only had a short nap, and he said I know but it slept me enough. In this sentence, the subject is it (the nap) and the object is me (i.e. the sleeper). I think that's quite cool.

Thursday, 14 July 2016

Congratulations on being an alumni?

My final-year students are graduating today. They'll be graduands for the duration of the morning and afternoon, and by around 3.30pm they'll be graduates. I enjoy this use of Latin morphology: the -and ending comes from the Latin gerund and gerundives, which end in -andum or -andus/-anda/-andum respectively.

The gerund is a noun derived from a verb, so in English it would be something like Graduating is a reason to celebrate. The gerundive is an adjective, and it's translated as something like 'to be graduated' (or 'fit to be graduated' or 'ought to be graduated'). It's this gerundive sense that we use in English: they are the students who are (fit) to be graduated. (Notice that we're using an adjective to refer to a thing, as in 'the French'.)

It appears that we've knocked off the gender agreement ending (-us, -a, or -um) and this helps us out in English so that we don't have to worry about whether it's a male or female graduand. Incidentally, when we borrowed this word into English I'm pretty sure they'd have all been chaps so I don't think this was gender equality at work.

When the graduands morph into graduates, they also become alumni, another Latin word. It's plural, in that form, and pedants will have know that the singular is alumnus or alumna, depending on whether you're male or female. Again, this is a bit annoying for English speakers who don't really bother that much with gender other than pronouns, and even there we're not fully signed up to a gendered system (we make no distinction other than for singular humans that aren't me or you (he and she, in other words), and singular they is also available if we can't be bothered even with that).

Normal procedure when removing gender distinction is to go with the male for everyone: actors and actresses become actors, lady doctors become doctors, and so on. With alumni, we're taking to using the plural form for everyone. You're an alumni once you graduate. This ever so slightly grates on me but I am a good linguist and a descriptivist and do not go around correcting people. I don't know why we use the plural. We're familiar with this in words like cactus/cacti so we might have used alumnus as the singular; we just didn't. Perhaps it's because we use alumni in the plural way more often than the singular and, as it's not that common a word, that's the one that stuck.