Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Full-priced tickets only available on trains

From next Monday, you can't buy discounted tickets once you're on board Southeastern trains, only the full-price ones. This, while a pity, as it was handy to be able just to hop on and buy one on the train, is only what all the companies do, so I suppose it was inevitable. But I'm sure you're eagerly awaiting the linguistic angle, and here it is, with the caveat that I've now stepped WAY outside my comfort zone and may have got this very wrong.

The announcement on the train went like this:
From Monday 20th of February, you will only be able to buy full-price tickets on board our trains. 
Fair enough. That says what they mean. Except it didn't! It said quite another thing, because they got the intonation totally wrong!

Sentences have intonation contours and prosodic units. It's where you put the stress and what bit of the sentence you treat as a phrase. Prosodic units line up with syntactic/semantic units, so the meaning is nice and easy to understand (I note that Wikipedia says they don't, though the examples there do, so I'm not sure what I'm missing).

I'm now going to try to convey the intonation with the use of bold text. The emboldened bits are meant to be given stress, and the bracketed bits are treated as a prosodic unit (the second one actually is a case where the prosodic unit doesn't match up with syntactic units):
You will only be able [to buy full-price tickets] on board our trains.
You will only be able to buy [full-price tickets on board our trains]. 
Try saying them out loud. In the first one, the meaning is that the only kind of ticket you can buy is full priced. Correct. In the second one, though, the meaning is that the only place you can buy full-priced tickets is on the trains, not anywhere else. False! You can buy them at the station or online too! And it's the second one that was in the announcement on the trains. If I were more of a pedant I might test them on this principle. But I'm not.

I'm sure I've got all the technical stuff wrong here, but I tried the two intonations out on my friend Stuart and he had the same interpretation as me, so the point is right, at least.

Friday, 20 January 2017

Was I good?

One of the pubs I go to in Margate has these awful seaside postcard illustrations on the walls of the toilet. These are pretty tame, usually, though some of them make reasonably explicit references. They usually rely on double entendre of some kind for the joke. Here's one where the joke relies on the way that the meaning of adjectives changes in different contexts:


Good is a particularly fuzzy word. What does it mean? All we can really say is that it has some positive meaning (and even 'positive' is a bit vague). The rest, nearly all of the meaning, has to come from context. This is known as being 'underdetermined'.

Doctor Who uses this to good effect in one episode: the Doctor (played by Peter Capaldi, I think, or maybe it was Matt Smith - one of the modern ones, anyway) says early on that there is no such thing as a good dalek, meaning that they're inherently evil beings. At the end of the episode - spoiler alert - the daleks call the Doctor himself a 'good dalek', meaning that he is good at being a dalek. The difference lies in the application of the word good to some aspect of dalekhood, in which case it means 'unfeeling', 'ruthless', efficient', or whatever, or in treating it separately and giving it whatever meaning the word has when applied to animate entities more generally ('kind', 'well-meaning', etc).

The woman in the cartoon says I promised Mummy I'd be good... was I?. It's the same thing as the Doctor Who example, more or less, but good means different things again. What she promised her Mummy was that she'd be good in the sense of the term as applied to the behaviour of daughters on a night out: polite, sober, and most importantly, chaste. What she's asking the man is whether she was good at a particular activity: in other words, did she perform well at it? This conflicts with the crucial parts of how she promised her Mummy she'd behave, but it doesn't mean that good has conflicting meanings. It just has almost no meaning without a knowledge of what it applies to.

How you interpreted the title of this post out of context might give you some idea of how filthy a mind you have.

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Josh Scot likes

This graffiti appears on a wall near where I live:


I imagine that that last word is an unfinished name, and Josh Scot was declaring his liking for that person but got caught in the act and had to scarper.

But I prefer to think that Scot likes Josh, and for whatever reason used an unusual word order to say so. Perhaps he was halfway through a comparison of the various people that other people like: Josh, Scot likes; Kieron, Phil likes. It's a bit strange to use this topicalisation construction in graffiti (or at all, to be honest - you see it in linguistics papers more than anywhere else) but you never know.

Incidentally, an indication of how uncommon a construction this is is that I just nearly got the participants the wrong way round: I typed 'Josh likes Scot' originally and had to think about it a bit to get it right. But you do sometimes find them occurring quite naturally and spontaneously, so it is a genuinely grammatical English sentence.

Saturday, 14 January 2017

On the rudeness of 'bint'

Last November I read The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. It was really good, incredibly readable (I whizzed through it) and engaging and moving. That's the book recommendation; from here on in there's very bad language so stop reading now if you don't like that.

Here's a bit of the text from the book:

As you can see, Boris uses the word bint, which is unfamiliar to the main character Potter. When he asks what it means, Boris (who is Russian and very linguistically adept in various languages including English slang) says 'Same as a cunt, basically'. This book is set in the USA, so maybe things are different there, but the two words definitely do NOT mean the same to me.

Cunt is so rude that I never say it (unless I'm writing a blog post about it...). I never say bint either, but it's extremely familiar to me from growing up in Newcastle, where it's an everyday part of the language. It really isn't taboo; children say it, adults say it around children, it's not frowned upon as a 'bad word'. The only reason I never say it is that it feels very derogatory towards women. It's generally used in a critical way, and often in a phrase like stupid bint. It doesn't feel affectionate to me. It's from Arabic (I only just found this out) - the same word means 'daughter' in Arabic. According to Wiktionary, the Yemeni community in Tyneside meant that it entered the dialect in that area, and it supports my sense that it's pejorative, as does the OED, which notes that it entered English from the language of British servicemen in Egypt in the two world wars.

But it's really, really not as taboo as cunt, I promise. The OED has the difference between the two as being 'colloq.' versus 'coarse slang'. Cunt is often cited as the most offensive swearword in English. This Independent article reports on a study that puts it in the top three. And yet, somehow, I dislike bint more, because it has this added sense that the pejorative sense comes from the femininity of it: it's an insult because it's a word for a woman, rather than because it's used towards one.

I should say that I'm talking about Standard English. It is true that for some people, cunt is an extremely common word, used all the time, and not used offensively. Among friendship groups it may be used as an affectionate or neutral term for other members of the group. And in Glaswegian dialects it's commonly used in an entirely neutral way, classed as a pronoun by my linguist friend Gary Thoms. Here's a video he shared with me, illustrating exactly this (and note that this usage frequently escapes the censors, because of a mix of the non-aggressive use and the accent):




Monday, 5 December 2016

The bestest

In my German class last week we learnt about comparatives and superlatives. German is simpler than English in this respect, as it always adds a suffix: -er for comparatives, -(e)ste(n) for superlatives. For superlatives, there are two ways of doing it. You either say am intelligentesten or die intelligenteste.

As usual, there's a really simple rule that my book didn't tell me and I had to go looking for. You use the am kind when it's predicative (not followed by the noun it modifies), as in Laura is the most intelligent, and you use the other kind when it's attributive (followed by the noun), as in She is the most intelligent woman in the room.

Some of the exercises I had to do involved wh-questions, like Which hotel was the nicest?. We can analyse these (in some theories) as having an understood hotel following nicest: we know that it means the nicest hotel. This is more evident with a question like Which biscuits did she bake?: it corresponds with She baked which biscuits, which relates to the answer She baked these biscuits.

Note, though, that we can't so easily put the wh-phrase back with the hotel question: *(It) was the nicest which hotel just doesn't work at all. This perhaps explains my observation. I had predicted that maybe when you have a wh-question, you'd use the der/die/das form, because there is an understood noun and it's sort of attributive. Sadly for me and my homework answers, this turned out not to be the case, and you use the am form there. Not so sad for the theory, though, because maybe this is precisely because of the impossibility of 'putting back' the wh-phrase to the position following the adjective.

Thursday, 1 December 2016

Worst. Blog. Post. Ever.

The snowclone 'Worst. X. Ever' (from the Comic Book Guy in The Simpsons) is easy enough: just substitute X with whatever it is you're commenting on, and you're done.



The full stops represent the way Comic Book Guy says the phrase, with a distinct pause between each word. It distinguishes this quotation use from just any old utterance of 'worst X ever'.

What do you do with them when the X is more than one word? These two tweets illustrate the difference. This one gets it wrong:
While this one gets it right:

If your X is more than one word, you can't put full stops after every word. The full stops represent pauses, and you don't pause in the middle of perfume name and Tinder bio. They're intonational phrases, spoken with a single intonational contour.

I slightly suspect it might be different with a phrase where the stress falls on the second word, though. For example, Worst. Jacket. Potato. Ever. seems to work a bit better (though Worst. Jacket potato. Ever is still best in my view).

Monday, 28 November 2016

Don't you not want some points?

On this week's episode of QI (available on the iPlayer for a few days if you're in the UK), Sandi Toksvig asked Alan Davies the following question:
Don't you not want some points or not? 
The point of QI, if you don't know, is that the questions are all kind of a trick. In this case, the trick is that it's hard to work out what the right answer is, and there's a penalty for a wrong answer.

This question brought about some linguistic chat, all of which ended with Sandi saying that only 'arbitrary pedants' would worry about double negatives, and explaining why the stigma came about in the first place. Gyles Brandreth also took the opportunity to tell us at length how English has half a million words and German only a hundred thousand (I guess it depends how you count them).

But the point here is the difficulty of the piled-up negatives, of course. Let's dispense with the easy one first: the or not at the end caused both Alan Davies and Victoria Coren to claim that it wasn't a yes or no question: it's two questions. WELL. This is technically true, it is two questions, but as I discuss at length in my thesis (and as is generally known; it's not my idea), this is actually one question because yes/no questions are a choice between two alternatives. So that's OK. We can in theory give a yes or no answer to this question. So which is the right one, assuming that you do want points?

WE DON'T KNOW! That's one of the cool things about this question and it's not even because of the double negative! It's because negative questions are inherently ambiguous! Look:
Don't you want some points?
No (I don't want some points)
Yes (??)
We don't always really have a clear sense of what 'yes' means in answer to a negative question. Probably, you feel that it means yes, I do want some points in this case. I do. But it's got to have the right intonation otherwise it doesn't mean anything much, though it can't mean that I don't want points, I don't think.
Do you not want some points?
No (I don't want some points)
Yes (??)
Again, it's not clear, without a sort of contradictory emphasis, what this means. There's tons of research on this which you can read if you're interested. Kramer & Rawlins use examples like the following to show that in fact, the interpretation is likely to be negative in such questions:
Is Alfonso not coming to the party?
No (=he isn't coming)
Yes (=he isn't coming)
So we've already got an issue with this kind of negation. Adding in a double negation, as in the original question, just adds parsing difficulty to the already ambiguous question. It is a real double negative, so it cancels out, as in I don't not like him... or is it double negation as found in many varieties, where one reinforces the other, as in I didn't do nothing or Didn't you not? We just don't know.

What, you thought I was going to answer this one? Nope. Unsolved problem, my friends.

(The 'correct' answer was yes, which is actually not what I'd have gone for: I'd have said it meant something like Isn't it the case that you don't want some points, or is that wrong?, so I'd have answered No, that's not the case. But maybe they went with yes as in Yes, that's true, it isn't the case that....)