May 13, 2013, 12:01 am
I promised last week that I would discuss three developments that turned almost-useless language-connected technological capabilities into something seriously useful. The one I want to introduce first was introduced by Google toward the end of the 1990s, and it changed our whole lives, largely eliminating the need for having full sentences parsed and translated into database query language.
The hunch that the founders of Google bet on was that simple keyword search could be made vastly more useful by taking the entire set of pages containing all of the list of search words and not just returning it as the result but rather ranking its members by influentiality and showing the most influential first. What a page contains is not the only relevant thing about it: As with any academic publication, who values it and refers to it is also important. And that is (at least to some extent)…
May 9, 2013, 12:01 am
Try typing this, or any question with roughly the same meaning, into the Google search box:
|Which UK papers are not part of the Murdoch empire?
Your results (and you could get identical ones by typing the same words in the reverse order) will contain an estimated two million or more pages about Rupert Murdoch and the newspapers owned by his News Corporation. Exactly what you did not ask for.
Putting quotes round the search string freezes the word order, but makes things worse: It calls not for the answer (which would be a list including The Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail, the Daily Mirror, etc.) but for pages where the exact wording of the question can be found, and there probably aren’t any (except this post).
Machine answering of such a question calls for not just a database of information about newspapers but also natural language processing (NLP). I’ve been…
April 30, 2013, 12:01 am
“Slang creates a lot of new nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs,” said Anne Curzan here on Lingua Franca recently; “it isn’t that often that slang creates a new conjunction.”
She puts her finger on exactly the right point there. For English to add a new word is not news. But the classes of words that modern linguists call lexical categories (“parts of speech” was the quaint 18th-century term for them) are like clubs of varying selectivity. They all admit new members from time to time, but while Noun is the least discriminating (very much the club that you wouldn’t want to belong to given that it would take just anybody), the most exclusive one, with the slowest growth, is probably the one traditionally called “conjunction”—the category of words like and, or, and but.
New nouns are added to English probably several times per day, while for conjunctions the rate would be better…
April 26, 2013, 12:01 am
A recent article on the BBC News Web site mentions a wearable self-defense accessory: a bra designed to deliver a 3800 kv electric shock to would-be rapists. It was brought to my attention by an e-mail correspondent whom I will call KR. He pointed out that the following text (which raises a very reasonable question) contains an interesting example of the syntactically singular use of the pronoun they:
The bra is fitted with a pressure sensor connected to an electric circuit. So how can the wearer be sure they won’t be on the receiving end of a hefty electric jolt?
The article is about combating the very unpleasant practice that in India is casually called “Eve-teasing”: sexual harassment and assault targeted on young women. It is presupposed that the users of the electric taser-cum-brassiere are going to be female. The article could thus easily have used the feminine: So how can the …
April 17, 2013, 12:01 am
Talking about North Korea with a friend the other day I referred to the country as a monarchy, and my friend looked distinctly puzzled, as if I was misinformed, as if the DPRK was some kind of democratic republic.
It’s funny how some issues of straight political substance are misrepresented as being about word definitions, and sometimes vice versa.
Whether the benefits of marriage should be accorded to same-sex couples seems to me to be a substantive political issue—a civil rights issue—and not (as I argued in a recent post here) about the definition of the term marriage. But the opposite is for a purely linguistic matter—about whether a certain dictionary definition fits—to be wrongly treated as having political substance.
What could make anyone think that North Korea is not a monarchy? It looks to me like one of the cruelest and most corrupt monarchies in human history…
April 8, 2013, 12:01 am
In my April 4 post I called George Orwell’s famous essay “Politics and the English Language” (P&EL) “A smug, arrogant, dishonest tract full of posturing and pothering, and writing advice that ranges from idiosyncratic to irrational.” I couldn’t substantiate all these charges in one post; I dealt with just one specific piece of silliness. Let me now explain why I charge P&EL not just with silliness but with intellectual dishonesty.
Orwell affects to believe that we users of English could improve the state of the language, “if enough people would interest themselves in the job.” For example, we should be able “to laugh the not un- formation out of existence.”
He means phrases like seemed not unlike a seventeenth-century Shelley (which he quotes from an essay by Harold Laski as a typical example of…
April 4, 2013, 12:01 am
George Orwell is well known to have legions of admirers who will leap to the keyboard to attack anyone who criticizes their hero. We academics are all supposed to admire him, and especially to regard his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language” (henceforth P&EL) as a deathless masterpiece of political and literary insight, and to urge our students to read it. Two distinguished evolutionary biologists devoted recent blog posts to ladling renewed praises on P&EL: Jerry “Why Evolution Is True” Coyne, referring with approval to a piece by Lewis Spurgin.
Well, apologies in advance to Orwell fans, but I have always found P&EL sickening. A smug, arrogant, dishonest tract full of posturing and pothering, and writing advice that ranges from idiosyncratic to irrational. Let me comment on just one of its sillinesses.
Orwell famously instructs you to expunge from your prose every…
March 26, 2013, 12:01 am
I’ve been interested in the linguistic aspects of defamation law for many years. Delving into the history of libel and slander uncovers all sorts of strange facts. Some are discussed in Chapters 12 and 13 of my book The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax, among them a case of a linguistics book that was blocked from publication because lawyers advised that the invented example sentences might be grounds for a libel action.
Under English case law, you can be sued (perhaps even successfully) for the content of interrogatives and imperatives as well as declaratives; for what is presupposed or implied as well as what is said; for statements you don’t yourself regard as defamatory; and even for words of praise if a reasonable person would think you were ironically implying something defamatory.
But there are defenses. Justifiable assertion of a provably true claim will normally not be subject…
March 22, 2013, 12:01 am
A putative grammar outrage blew up a week ago in Britain when the Conservative-dominated Mid Devon district council announced plans to “abolish the apostrophe.” The signs for Beck’s Square, Blundell’s Avenue, and St. George’s Well would under the new policy say Becks Square, Blundells Avenue, and St Georges Well. Indeed, the council has been using apostrophe-free signs for years, like other districts (the pictured sign for Baker’s View is in neighboring Teignbridge district). The proposal was simply to make the tacit policy official.
But out came the usual suspects to froth and fulminate. A spokesperson for the Plain English Society, Steve Jenner, launched straight into a slippery-slope argument (as if nothing had ever been written on fallacies or critical thinking): “It’s nonsense,” he raged; “Where’s it going to stop? Are we going to declare war on commas, outlaw full stops?”…
March 13, 2013, 12:01 am
Strangers write to me all the time to express their language peeves. (I don’t know why; few people are less likely to sympathize with random peeves than I am.) Recently a man wrote to tell me that he had a specific adverb that he hated: “The first word I would eliminate from the English language is ‘quite’. It rarely adds anything.”
Notice that he wants to “eliminate” the word, not just leave it in the lexical toolbox for others to use. Three unsavory tendencies probably reinforce each other here: (1) the familiar “get-rid-of-the-adverbs” nonsense preached by bad usage handbooks and writing advice sites; (2) the curious phenomenon that Language Log calls word rage; and (3) the kind of crusading linguistic purism that aims not just at personal improvement but at bossing other people around.
Quite is one of the primitive adverbs, not derived from adjective stems by the addition of…