All posts by Geoffrey Pullum

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Babbler Birds and Babbling Journalists

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Chestnut-crowned babblers (Photo: Aviceda, via Wikimedia Commons)

We have seen it before, with bonobos and monkeys and parrots and dogs and cows and dolphins. Even bats. Heaven knows how many beasts of the field and birds of the air have been the subjects of irresponsible science journalism claiming that animal behavior reveals how human language originated, or (more commonly) that they use language just like humans.

I have written many times on Language Log and occasionally on Lingua Franca abo…

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Revolutionary Methodological Preliminaries

MIT Photo

It is rather surprising that more has not been done this year (thus far, anyway) to commemorate a significant semicentenary: the 50th anniversary of what could reasonably be called the most influential linguistics book of the 20th century. It was published by MIT Press in 1965 as “Special Technical Report 11” of the Research Laboratory of Electronics at MIT, and has recently been re-released with a new preface, but it doesn’t seem to have inspired any major conferences or other celebra…

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36 Words

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You’re 72; a respected male biologist, fellow of both the Royal Society and the Academy of Medical Sciences, 2001 Nobelist in physiology and medicine, husband to a distinguished female immunology professor, knighted for services to science. You’re giving an informal speech at a Women In Science lunch, part of a conference of science journalists in faraway South Korea. With a twinkle in your eye, you risk revealing your human side with a candid 36-word admission about your experiences when young…

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Scrabbling for Words

My Lingua Franca colleage Anne Curzan recently published a post about recent additions to the official Scrabble dictionary, of which there have been a surprisingly large number. (I guess that’s the way they’ve found to keep on selling Scrabble dictionaries.)

Naturally Anne didn’t object to this horde of new arrivals. We linguists always seem to be on the side of change, diversity, exoticness, and immigration, don’t we? But some people don’t like to see new additions. A few not only recoil at the…

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Take My Metadata

RANDPAUL-2We are all going to have to get used to the word metadata. Explaining what it means in simple terms is quite tricky, for it is a genuinely abstract concept. (And let me warn the purists up front that in this post I am going to be treating data not as the plural of the Latin word datum, but as an English singular noncount noun like air, fun, furniture, information, or water: I will say the data is stored, not the data are stored.)

As a preliminary shot, one could say that in any domain where data…

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An Honor and a Horror

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Brooklyn Beckham, the 16-year-old son of the soccer star David Beckham and Victoria (Posh Spice) Beckham, met Professor Stephen Hawking during a day in Cambridge recently. Brooklyn put a photo of the encounter on Instagram, adding a brief remark: “What a honour to meet Stephan Hawking. Such an inspiring afternoon.”

Such is the delight taken by the British press in silly linguistic caviling that Brooklyn’s grammar became the scandal of the day. BBC radio’s World at One had an embarrassing interv…

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Competence, Performance, and Climate

1280-The-Weather-Channel-Forecast-by-New-CEO-David-Kenny-aNoam Chomsky’s distinction between competence and performance has been controversial in linguistics and psycholinguistics for 50 years. The proponents of generative grammar presuppose it and rely on it, and have tried explaining the distinction many times, often unsuccessfully. I recently came across a neat way to encapsulate it that comes not from a linguist but from a mathematical meteorologist.

Psycholinguists (concerned with how language is really handled in human minds) and sociolinguists (…

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Legal and Illegal Commas

One of the commenters on “Dumb Copy Editing Survives” last week said something that worried me. My topic was the contrast between sentences of the sort seen in [1a] and [1b] (I prefix [1b] with an asterisk to indicate that it is ungrammatical):

[1] a.  We are none of us native or purebred.
b. *We are, none of us, native or purebred.

 

What the commenter said was: “If I read the erroneous version, I would have still taken away the exact same meaning. I’d just think there were too many co…

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Dumb Copy Editing Survives

Once, when I was younger, I was (you’ll find this hard to imagine) somewhat abrasive, and I openly despised copy editors and all their kith and kin. I had formed the impression that they are all irritating, pusillanimous time-wasters. Primitive, mindless creatures whose instincts drive them, antlike, to make slavishly defined changes.

They would unsplit infinitives that I had split for good reason; they would reflexively change since to because even if I had deliberately avoided the latter becau…

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Diary of a Visiting Speaker

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The audience at a talk sees the visiting speaker ushered into the room to check the connection dongle for the projector and greet a few faculty acquaintances in the front row. A brief introduction, a 50-minute talk, and a small reception and perhaps a hosted meal. Two or three hours, all expenses paid. Easy work?

Not exactly. For the speaker, the experience is quite a bit longer. I have about a dozen lecture trips this year, the most recent at the Christian Albrechts University, Kiel, Germany. …