Tuesday, May 31, 2005

On Language 5/31: Debut of Journal of Politeness Research

New journal accompanies changing view of politeness
Chicago Tribune, May 31, 2005
By Nathan Bierma

Politeness can play a crucial role in professional and personal relationships, says Chris Christie, linguist at Loughborough University and founding member of the Linguistic Politeness Research Group, an organization of academic researchers who study polite speech and behavior. Christie and her colleagues have just launched the Journal of Politeness Research, which will publish two issues per year, with Christie as editor.

“Understanding the wide range of politeness behavior that is expected in a culture, and the way this is influenced by the context of an institution or the social relationship between speakers, is very complex, and far from self-evident,” Christie writes by e-mail. “Misjudging the effect of what you say can be extremely important—for communicating ideas and for fostering personal relationships.”

The journal can be read for free online until July 15.

Chris Christie agreed to have her full written responses to my questions posted here. I greatly appreciate the time she took to provide such thorough responses.


Posted by Nathan Bierma on 05/31 at 04:56 PM
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Thursday, May 26, 2005

Against ‘Against’: One Hymn’s Indecent Preposition

But I know Whom I have believèd,
And am persuaded that He is able
To keep that which I’ve committed
Unto Him against that day.

-I Know Whom I Have Believed

In the hundred or so times I’ve sung this hymn, I’ve wondered how you can “commit” something “against” a day. Does this preposition indicate that God is keeping/protecting the commitment against the threat of judgment day? Or is “against” an old-fashioned preposition approximating “until”? And is it the keeping that’s against that day, or the commitment?

A comparison of different versions of 2 Timothy 1:12—from which the hymn is taken—supports the “until” interpretation:




Posted by Nathan Bierma on 05/26 at 03:23 PM
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Grammatical Agent of Renewal

Just finished a phone interview with Geoff Pullum, in which he asked me about teaching English 101. I obsequiously assured him that I warn my students that you can’t believe everything you read in Elements of Style. (For the record, Pullum calls that classic “a toxic little book of mostly mistaken prejudices, a classic compendium of American ignorance.”)

Pullum exclaimed, in his distinctive British accent, “You are doing God’s work!”

Posted by Nathan Bierma on 05/26 at 12:01 PM
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On Language 5/24: Amazon’s Statistically Improbable Phrases

Amazon’s SIPs let readers search and dip into books
Chicago Tribune, May 24, 2005
By Nathan Bierma

In March, Amazon rolled out “statistically improbable phrases,” or “SIPS.” This search feature finds word pairs that are unusually common in a book compared with other books. ... Some SIPs are revealing (“old sport” in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby”), while others are numbing (“fossiliferous formations” in Charles Darwin’s “Origin of Species”; “linearized fluctuations” in the book “Artificial Black Holes”). But others aren’t phrases at all.

FYI, the SIP’s for colleague and co-contributor Bill Vande Kopple’s The Catch: Families, Fishing, and Faith are bait house and trolling motor—which he shares with Adventure Guide to Tampa Bay & Florida’s West Coast and Bass Pro Strategies: Locating and Catching Techniques of the Professionals. Oh, and Amazon says Bill’s book gives you 6,505 words-per-dollar. I wonder how many words-per-dollar you get if you pay tuition to hear him lecture?

Posted by Nathan Bierma on 05/26 at 09:01 AM
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Lucas Vs. Tolkien: A Phonology Showdown

From Anthony Lane’s scathing review of Star Wars Episode III:

Sith. What kind of a word is that? Sith. It sounds to me like the noise that emerges when you block one nostril and blow through the other, but to George Lucas it is a name that trumpets evil. What is proved beyond question by “Star Wars: Episode III*Revenge of the Sith,” the latest*and, you will be shattered to hear, the last*installment of his sci-fi bonanza, is that Lucas, though his eye may be greedy for sensation, has an ear of purest cloth. All those who concoct imagined worlds must populate and name them, and the resonance of those names is a fairly accurate guide to the mettle of the imagination in question. Tolkien, earthed in Old English, had a head start that led him straight to the flinty perfection of Mordor and Orc. Here, by contrast, are some Lucas inventions: Palpatine. Sidious. Mace Windu. (Isn’t that something you spray on colicky babies?) Bail Organa. And Sith.

Posted by Nathan Bierma on 05/26 at 08:57 AM
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Soon Before

Arnold Zwicky, from ASD-L‘s recent discussion of “soon before”

> Seymour Hersh in /Chain of Command/ on pp. 355-6 writes:
> “....security official said in an interview _soon before_ the transfer of sovereignty that…”  [my emphasis].
> This looks & sounds very odd to me;  I would expect _shortly before_here.

“shortly” is fine, but “soon” sounds perfectly good to me here.  in
wh questions of extent, with “how”, “soon” is very common: “How soon
before the game did you arrive?”

outside of contexts with “how”, “soon before”  is common, though not
nearly as connon as “shortly before” or “soon after”.  in raw google
web hits:

  —> “soon before” -how: ca. 31,900
  “soon after” -how: ca. 2,670,000

  “shortly before”: ca. 2,960,000
  “shortly after”: ca. 11,400,000



Posted by Nathan Bierma on 05/26 at 08:49 AM
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Words can ‘domesticate a fear’

A rather morbid but vivid poem from Richard Wilbur, quoted in a Christian Century review of his new compilation (which is excellent):

A Barred Owl

Words, which can make our terrors bravely clear,
Can also thus domesticate a fear,
And send a small child back to sleep at night
Not listening for the sound of stealthy flight
Or dreaming of some small thing in a claw
Borne up to some dark branch and eaten raw.


Posted by Nathan Bierma on 05/26 at 08:42 AM
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Good morning! What’s for dinner?

From Michael Quinion’s review of Word Histories and Mysteries:

An attic, for example, is named after a classical architectural
style, behind which this topmost story was hidden; “caprice” in
origin refers to hedgehogs, not goats as it might seem and was
afterwards assumed; “dinner” derives from a French word meaning to
have breakfast
; “fornication” refers to a vault, since prostitutes
in Rome plied their trade in arched cellars and similar places. A
“hearse” is, etymologically speaking, the same as the agricultural
implement called a harrow. The entry on “internecine” points out
that mistaken usage becomes conventional when everybody adopts it,
as has happened here, since the word had as its first English sense
“fought to the death”; however, Dr Johnson mistook its origins in
his dictionary and defined it as “endeavouring mutual destruction”,
which led to its modern sense. “Menu” is another oddity, since the
Latin original could mean “involving minute knowledge”, and was
applied in French in the sense of “detailed list”. “Nausea”, it
transpires, was originally and specifically seasickness, “pants”
for trousers derives indirectly from the name of a fourth-century
Roman Catholic saint in Venice, and a slogan is in origin a Scots
Gaelic war cry.

Posted by Nathan Bierma on 05/26 at 08:36 AM
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Dame un hamburger plain con ketchup y papitas

Highlights from the April issue of the excellent journal English Today:

Dame un hamburger plain con ketchup y papitas

Ileana Cortés a1, Jesús Ramírez a2, María Rivera a3, Marta Viada a4 and Joan Fayer a5

English/Spanish contact in Puerto Rico.

ONE OUTCOME of language contact is lexical borrowing. Borrowing in Puerto Rico (for political, economic, and social reasons) is evident in the influence English has had on Spanish, especially in lexical terms. This paper explores the impact of American English on the lexicon of Puerto Rican Spanish, specifically on vocabulary relating to food. Data were collected through participant observation in selected fast food restaurants from different regions in P.R. An analysis of the corpus provides the basis for five categories useful in understanding the influence of English on Spanish in this domain. The study indicates that English borrowings have had a tremendous influence on the Puerto Rican lexicon, and predicts that, even though Spanish will continue to be the dominant Puerto Rican language, it will continue to change under the influence of English.

English Today (2005), 21:2:35-42 Cambridge University Press


Posted by Nathan Bierma on 05/26 at 08:30 AM
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OK Kids, It’s Time For Form-Focused Language Play!

From the current issue of Applied Linguistics:

Language Play, a Collaborative Resource in Children’s L2 learning
Asta Cekaite and Karin Aronsson
Linköping University

Within communicative language teaching, ‘natural’ language has had a privileged position, and a focus on form has been seen as something inauthentic or as something that is inconsequential for learning (for a critique, see Kramsch and Sullivan 1996; Cook 1997). Yet in the present study of an immersion classroom, it was found that children with limited L2 proficiency recurrently employed form-focused language play in spontaneous peer conversations. Our work involves a distinct focus on multiparty talk, and it is shown how language play is, in many ways, a collaborative affair, initiated by the children themselves. Playful mislabelings and puns often generated extended repair sequences that could be seen as informal ‘language lessons’ focused on formal aspects of language. Simultaneously, shared laughter and shifting alignments between peers were central aspects of the local politics of classroom life. The joking was quite rudimentary. Yet it included artful performance and collaborative aestheticism, involving alliteration and other forms of parallelisms, as well as code switching, laughing, and artful variations in pitch, volume and voice quality. The paper illustrates the need to integrate language play in models of L2 learning.

Key Words: language play; joking events; collaborative performance; second language learning; immersion classroom.

Applied Linguistics 2005 26(2):169-191

Posted by Nathan Bierma on 05/26 at 08:27 AM
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Monday, May 23, 2005

One Grammar Maven Salutes Another

Jim Vanden Bosch, English extraordinaire, incoming department chair, contributor to this blog, and recent grammar celebrity, talks to the Grand Rapids Press about being mentioned by name in President Bush’s commencement speech on Saturday:

Professor surprised by president’s mention

Calvin College English Professor James Vanden Bosch wasn’t forewarned President Bush would single him out in his commencement address. “I bring a great message of hope and freedom to Calvin College Class of 2005,” Bush said. “There is life after Professor Vanden Bosch and English 101.” Sitting in the front row with other faculty members, Vanden Bosch said later: “I laughed. I thought it was very funny. I enjoyed it very much, but it was a complete surprise.” Watching on television at home, Vanden Bosch’s wife, Maria, and daughters, Christina and Anjean, were equally surprised. “We were jumping up and down and laughing and saying, ‘My dad’s a celebrity,’” said Christina, 19.

Posted by Nathan Bierma on 05/23 at 08:48 AM
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Tuesday, May 17, 2005

On Language 5/17: Yoda’s Grammar

YodaOut of this world Yoda’s syntax always has been
Chicago Tribune, May 17, 2005
By Nathan Bierma

This week’s final installment of the “Star Wars” franchise is not only the end of a cinematic era. The completion of George Lucas’ second trilogy will be the last hurrah for one of the most grammatically eclectic film characters of all time: Yoda. ...

Yoda is a syntactical switch-hitter, alternating among object-initial sentences (“Rootleaf I cook”), subject-initial sentences (“A Jedi’s strength flows from the Force”), and sentence fragments (“No different! Only different in your mind.”)

Sometimes you will hear Yoda start a sentence with the kind of adjective that grammar textbooks call a subject complement, as in “Strong is Vader,” or he will separate helping verbs from main verbs, as in “Help you I can.”

Here’s Geoff Pullum‘s extended analysis of “Help you I can,” which is not for the grammatically faint of heart (much less a newspaper):

(Update: Pullum’s more formal follow-up is at LL. In another e-mail, he clarifies that in “I can help you,” “can” is actually the main verb and “help” is ‘“a nonfinite verb heading a catenative complement.” Got that?)

(Update 2: I commented on this article for Chicago Public Radio—see the 5th segment.)


Posted by Nathan Bierma on 05/17 at 09:32 AM

‘Divine Super-Gender’

The intro to Philip Mathias’ The Perfect Prayer is an articulate explanation of a commonly complained-about conundrum:

The Perfect Prayer by Philip MathiasThis book comes to the obvious conclusion that God is neither male nor female. But I have consistently referred to God as “he” or “him.” The reason is entirely linguistic. I have not found a way to use the English language to express this notion of divine super-gender without clumsiness and confusion, both of which would obscure the ideas and conclusions that I have tried to present. Alternating “he” and “she” doesn’t work because it is too arch and would force the gender issue into every single reference to God. Referring to God as “it” doesn’t work either for obvious reasons. Using no pronouns at all and referring only to “God” as “God” each time is enormously heavy-handed and would greatly belabor the text. Thus the misleading “he” seems to be the only literary solution that works.

Posted by Nathan Bierma on 05/17 at 09:25 AM
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French Homonyms

French homonyms from LanguageGuide:

auteur author /  hauteur height
bout tip, end /  boue mud
foie liver /  fois, foi time, faith
mal harm, evil / malle trunk
manche handle /  manche sleeve


Posted by Nathan Bierma on 05/17 at 09:24 AM
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International Enquirer

More from Michael Quinion’s World Wide Words.

This is a good answer to a question that’s been on my mind, but it doesn’t address a related puzzle: since the National Enquirer uses the “e” spelling and the Philadelphia Inquirer the “i,” does that make the “e” spelling sleazy?

(Earlier from WW Words: to foot the bill)

Q. In your issue of 23 April you wrote “Earnest enquirers wish to
know.” The Latin for “he said” is “inquit”. Hence it always seems
correct to me to use the English “inquired” rather than “enquired”.
How say you? [Barry Shandling, Toronto]

A. As you might guess, I rather disagree.



Posted by Nathan Bierma on 05/17 at 09:21 AM
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