Friday, September 30, 2005

Martin Sexton

Just back from my first Martin Sexton show. I've been a Sexton fan since first hearing his music on WXPN in Philly in the late 90s, but always with a little bit of reluctance, because I'd also heard an interview with him on WXPN in which I thought he sounded like he might be an insufferably self-satisfied and conceited prat. Didn't stop me playing his discs, though.

But now I can say, having seen him live, that he's bloody entitled, if that's really what he's like, which of course it's probably not. Amazing. He's got a phenomenal voice, of course, and he's an excellent songwriter. He also plays with his voice in surprising and fun ways, setting up a second mike to create eerie and beautiful and wild feedback effects, and producing enough rich and layered sound with a single guitar to put most four-piece groups to shame. And finally, he projects a joy and abandon in performing that is absolutely infectious and irresistible, and which only a few other musicians of my experience can manage. He's an extremely generous & giving performer.

Plus he's a bit of a slob, which is endearing, and his fan base seems to consist largely of twenty-something males who I find very familiar; they all seem like they're in grad school. I think this speaks well of him.

But mainly: it was an amazing show, capped by a long, jammy series of covers, including A Day in the Life (Beatles) and Mercedes Benz (Joplin) and various Pink Floyd and Peter Frampton clips, among other things.

Go see him, all you residents of Las Vegas, San Juan Capistrano, Santa Barbara, Sacramento, Petaluma, Eugene, Bellingham, Tacoma, Dallas, Austin, Helotes, Tulsa, Louisville, Birmingham, Greensboro, Norfolk, and Northhampton out there. You won't regret it.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

3 sluicing puzzles: Number one

I don't actually know anything much about sluicing or ellipsis, but this past year I've learned a lot more than I had known, notably from a talk I heard at MIT in March by Sandy Chung, reporting one of the neatest observations I've heard in a long time, and now from a supercool seminar that Andy Barss is giving here at Arizona on the topic. Also, last year, a student in my fieldwork class at Harvard was interested in sluicing, and now this year I'm on the prelim committee of Dave Medeiros, one of our graduate students, and he's been thinking about it. Plus recently Rob Stainton sent me a paper, and then kindly invited me to come and kibitz at an ellipsis Erniefest he's organizing next year. So I'm gradually getting up to speed.
In the course of learning about it, I've run across a few related phenomena that (I think) are surprising or interesting. They may be discussed in the literature -- as I say, I'm no expert -- but so far I haven't seen 'em talked about. I don't have any immediate plans to investigate, but I'd like to tell about them, in case some one else might find them interesting.

The first one is a discovery from our fieldwork class on Finnish at Harvard last year, where undergrad Jeremy Hartman was interested in sluicing, and elicited some surprising things. The main surprise was that Finnish seems to violate Merchant's generalization concerning sluicing and preposition-stranding. This may have been noticed before, but this was the first I'd learned of it.

Merchant's generalization is this: A language L will allow preposition-stranding under sluicing iff L allows preposition stranding under regular wh-movement.

That is, in English, we can say

1. John talked to someone, but I don't remember who.

because we can say

2. Who did John talk to ?

... whereas in French, you can't say

3. *Marie a parlé à quelqu'un, mais je ne sais pas qui.
Marie has spoken to someone, but I neg know not who.

because you can't say

4. *Qui a Marie parlé à ?
Who has Marie spoken to?

In French, you can't strand a preposition when you wh-move the NP associated with it; rather, you have to pied-pipe the preposition along with the question word. That is, you have to say

5. a. À qui a Marie parlé?
To who has Marie spoken?

b. Marie a parlé à quelqu'un, mais je ne sais pas à qui.
Marie has spoken to someone, but I neg know not to who.

(Excuse any mistakes in my French, 'tis been a while. But the point about preposition stranding is true).

Anyway, the point is that the possibility of a sentence like 2 or 4 in a language is supposed to predict the possibility of a sentence like 1 or 3 (and vice versa). It's a very robust generalization, it seems. But Finnish, according to our consultant Santeri Palviainen and another Finnish friend of his, does not allow sentences like 2 or 4 but does allow sentences like 1 and 3.

Here's the illustrative examples, taken from Jeremy's paper for the course. First, examples which show you can't strand an adposition in a wh-question in Finnish:

6. a. Kene-n kaa sä leiki-t
who-gen with you.nom play-2sg
With who(m) are you playing?

b. *Kene-n sä leiki-t kaa
who-gen you.nom play-2sg with
Who are you playing with?

Because 6b is ill-formed, while 6a is ok, it's clear that the adposition cannot remain in its base position, but has to move to the front of the sentence with the wh-word.

And now, here is the sluice:

(7) Se leikki-i jonku-n kaa, mutt-en tiiä kenen (kaa)
He.nom play-3sg sb-gen with, but-neg.1sg know who-gen (with)
He’s playing with someone, but I don’t know (with) who.

The adposition kaa is perfectly omissible, indeed, Santeri suggested that the sluice is somewhat more natural without it.

Finnish is of course probably somewhat special in terms of its adposition inventory, since it's got a zillion nominal cases to play with, but it definitely has lexical items that qualify as adpositions (both pre- and postpositions, and some that are both), and they definitely can't strand in wh-questions.

Some, though, seem to do something funny when they pied-pipe along with their wh-NP. Compare (8) and (9):

(8) T tule-e ennen uu-ta
T come-3rdsg.pres before U-part
‘The T comes before the U.’

(9) Mi-tä ennen T tule-e
What-part before T come-3rdsg.pres
‘Before what does T come?’

That is, a preposition like ennen appears after the wh-phrase, rather than before it, when it pied-pipes in a wh-question. This might be the place to look in trying to reconcile Finnish with the generalization, I suspect -- it's maybe like Finnish does mandatory swiping in wh-questions, without the deletion part. (It's worth noting that in other respects, such as in exhibiting case-matching, Finnish sluicing is quite well behaved).

Anyway, that's the first thing. I'll post the other two (much less involved) observations sometime in the next week, but I'm not sure exactly when.


Update: Francophones -- check out this survey on sluicing posted by Chris over at Serendipity. How bad are those prepositionless wh-words?

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

F*ing evolution

There's an extensive article in today's NYTimes Science section about language, which seems to have so far escaped comment in the linguablogosphere. The title, "Almost before we spoke, we swore," frames the article as making a claim about the relative timing of the evolution of language and the emergence of swearing. The implication that the article is about the evolution of swearing is strengthened by an immediate attribution of an opinion to 'researchers who study the evolution of language'. This was somewhat off-putting, because I think there is unlikely to be any direct evidence of whether prehistoric humans swore or not.

The article, when you get to the meat of it, is mostly a reasonable presentation of interesting and evidence-driven research into what is behaviorally and neurologically special about swearing, in contrast to more neutral forms of human linguistic expression. However, choosing to frame it as a claim about evolution strikes me as fairly misguided.

The strongest statement of the apparent claim in the entire article is the following:
In fact, said Guy Deutscher, a linguist at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands and the author of "The Unfolding of Language: An Evolutionary Tour of Mankind's Greatest Invention," the earliest writings, which date from 5,000 years ago, include their share of off-color descriptions of the human form and its ever-colorful functions. And the written record is merely a reflection of an oral tradition that Dr. Deutscher and many other psychologists and evolutionary linguists suspect dates from the rise of the human larynx, if not before.
In other words, the reasoning seems to be, because we have evidence that humans' linguistic behavior has included swearing for the past 5000 years, it has probably included swearing since linguistic behavior itself first appeared. This reasoning is supposed to be bolstered by the claim, attributed to 'researchers who study the evolution of language and the psychology of swearing,' that all human languages include swearwords, i.e. that cursing is a linguistic universal.

If you substitute "recursive syntactic structure" for "swearing" in this chain of reasoning (where the facts are the same — 5000 years of written evidence and a reasonable conjecture that it's a human universal), I think you would have grounds for a fistfight among evolutionary linguists. I don't think that that claim would pass muster as the uncontested framing message of a NY Times Science section article.

Nonetheless, about 60 percent of the article consists of clearly written discussion of actual reseach on swearing, which was interesting and informative. I guess overall it rates about a C.

Penguins and therolinguistics

This summer I was reading a collection of short stories of Ursula K. LeGuin's that I'd been meaning to enjoy for some time, The Compass Rose, and my mind was doubly blown by the first story, first because it was fantasy about linguistics (interspecies literary studies, really), and second because it talked about the poetry of emperor penguins, and I'd just seen the March of the Penguins. The story's titled " 'The author of the acacia seeds', and other extracts from the Journal of the Association of Therolinguistics." I like the whole story, but here's the bit that I really felt showed LeGuin's amazing perceptiveness (and of course prose skills), decades before the IMAX Experience:

To those of my colleagues in whom the spirit of scientific curiosity and aesthetic risk is strong, I say, Imagine it: the ice, the scouring snow, the darkness, the ceaseless whine and scream of wind. In that black desolation a little band of poets crouches. They are starving; they will not eat for weeks. On the feet of each one, under the warm belly feathers, rests one large egg, thus preserved from the mortal touch of the ice. The poets cannot hear each other; they cannot see each other. They can only feel each other's warmth. That is their poetry, that is their art. Like all kinetic literatures, it is silent; unlike other kinetic literatures, it is all but immobile, ineffably subtle. The ruffling of a feather; the shifting of a wing; the touch, the slight, faint, warm touch of the one beside you. In unutterable, miserable, black solitude, the affirmation. In absence, presence. In death, life.

I read this right after seeing the MotP, and it really hit me like a ton of bricks. LeGuin, I think, expresses the stirring aspect of the penguins' story more elequently than the narration in the movie, which was full of (what felt to me like) Disneyfying talk of the power of love. Luckily they had all that amazing footage to offset it.

[You try spelling "Disneyfying"!]

Saturday, September 17, 2005

The sheer enormousness

The same NY Times article containing a use of 'as such' that prompted comment from Mark Lieberman at Language Log this morning contains another noteworthy linguistic innovation, this time morphological, that caught my eye. Paragraph 8 begins:

"The problems clearly stem largely from the sheer enormousness of the disaster."

Here, the adjective enormous has been nominalized, but not with its normal nominalizing derivational affix, -ity. Rather, the all-purpose default -ness has been pressed into service. To my eye, it's a classic example of overgeneralization, of the Daddy goed! type, only with derivational morphology. Evidence, methinks, of the productivity of derivation and of its paradigmatic, Elsewhere-Principle nature, and remarkable because of its occurence the the NY Times -- neither the writers nor the editors noticed that the standard 'enormity' might have been called for, in a prescriptive sense.

In a Google fight between 'enormity' and 'enormousness', 'enormity' is the overwhelming victor at 1,920,000 to 28,600 gH, so this regularization is still in its infancy; I wonder if it'll ever catch on. I found this particular case especially interesting because the nominal 'enormousness' is contained within a phrase that I recognize as a collocation, which I guess I'll have to gloss "sheer enorm-NOM", normally "sheer enormity", but in this case, of course, "sheer enormousness". The phrase "sheer enormity" gets 43,000 gH (more even than 'enormousness' by itself), while other, less codified modifiers of 'enormity' are much less common: "great enormity" at 437 gH, "extreme enormity" at 57 gH, "remarkable enormity" at 77. 'Sheer enormousness' does pretty well, considering, at 290 gH. Indeed, the gH ratio of "sheer enormity":"enormity" = 0.02, and the ratio of "sheer enormousness":"enormousness" = 0.01, not too dissimilar.

Given Mark's 'as such' observations together with the use of 'enormousness', seems like these NY Times authors, Jennifer Steinhauer and Eric Lipton, are on the forefront of linguistic innovation.

Update: Chris and q_pheever have brought it to my rather astonished attention that in point of fact, 'enormity' at some point fell into prescriptive disfavor as a simple nominalization of 'enormous', and 'enormousness' was recommended as the appropriate form. See the usage notes from the AHD that Chris has posted in the comments.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005


Grrr..spammers seem to have discovered this blog recently. Very annoying. Blogger provides word verification; I'm turning it on.

In the meantime, here's a couple of language cartoons for your viewing pleasure. Re the Dilbert languages: They're all in the Ethnologue.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Simpsons Wikipedia Words

Courtesy of Martha McGinnis: