Friday, February 16, 2007

More on spraying

So, biking home today, I found myself thinking some more about spraying. I think that although the essence of my comments in the last post are correct, there's some other things that might be interesting to note.

Yesterday, I noted that 'spray' comes in an intransitive manner-of-motion construction:

1. The oil sprayed onto the wall.

Interestingly, I find this to be ill-formed without the Goal PP:

2. #The oil sprayed.

What about the transitive case? The agentive manner of motion form is fine, with the unselected object, of course; that's what we were talking about:

3. Sue sprayed her way out of the hospital.

But there's also a selected-object causative, a true causative of (1) (unlike (3), which is an unselected-object case:

4. Sue sprayed the paint onto the wall.

I personally find (4) somewhat degraded without the Goal PP, which is nice, because it means that (4) and (5) really do parallel (1) and (2):

5. ?#Sue sprayed the oil.

And, of course, (4) can undergo the famous 'spray/load' alternation, whereby the Goal PP can be reanalyzed as a direct object, with consequences for its measuring-out ability and scope properties (scope of indefinite Goal gets fixed w/r to universally quantified Theme):

6. Sue sprayed the wall with oil.

But really got me thinking on the way home was that it occurred to me that there is another transitive 'spray' -- interestingly, where the subject isn't agentive at all. Rather, the subject is just the source of the spraying. The object is the Theme, and no Goal is necessary (though of course one is possible).

6. a. The hose sprayed oil.
b. The wound sprayed blood.

How about that! This is kind of an interesting case. The subject is truly external, with a kind of source/instrument reading, but is crucially nonvolitional. (There are other examples like this -- 'glow', etc. -- but this is the first transitive one I've really noticed). It's almost a kind of cognate/hyponymous object construction (The broken pipe sprayed a fine spray of oil), except that the object isn't optional, unlike the usual cognate/hyponymous object constructions (see (2)).


Thursday, February 15, 2007

What should the penalty be for violating the DOR? (Crosspost from LL)

Headline tonight from AP: "Woman allegedly 'sprays' out of hospital."

That's terrible! I thought. But what's with that 'allegedly'? Spraying out of a hospital isn't a crime, surely!

But of course, she didn't spray out of the hospital. She sprayed her way out of the hospital. She actually pepper-sprayed her way out of the hospital. I can understand how that might be a crime.

See, thing is, in English you can describe motion events -- something going from point A to point B -- with almost any verb, even ones that don't in and of themselves refer to motion.

Verbs like 'walk', 'run', 'stroll', etc. are motion verbs in and of themselves. Their subject is the traveller; in John walked out of the hospital, John is the one going from point A to point B.

Now consider verbs like 'whistle', 'sing', 'rattle', 'wriggle', 'twitch', 'smirk', etc. The events denoted by these verbs by themselves don't imply travelling from anywhere to anywhere. With a sentence like Mary whistled, the crucial thing that makes the sentence true is that Mary do some whistling, not that she be moving or not.

However, even these verbs can describe motion events in English, with one crucial restriction. When you add the location to the sentence (to the house, out, there, whatever), you have to add some kind of direct object to the sentence. It's not usually a real direct object, more a kind of an ersatz one, involving some pronominal element that refers back to the subject:

1. Mary whistled her way down the lane.

2. John smirked his way out of the room.

3. Bill sang himself to Carnegie Hall

So, what about 'spray'? Spray is a motion verb. You can use it to describe motion from point A to point B, as long as that motion occurs in a characteristic spraying fashion -- i.e. moving as droplets or particles propelled outward in a spreading fashion. So, e.g., the sentence below is fine:

4. The oil sprayed out of the hose.

That is, the motion itself has to be occurring in a spraying kind of way, when there's no direct object. The same fact obtains with the non-motion verbs above -- the direct object isn't required if the motion itself is occurring in the relevant way. So, famously, The bullet whistled through the window is ok without an object, because it's the bullet's motion itself that is making the whistling noise.

But spray can also occur in a causative construction, where the subject of the verb is not actually spraying per se, but is rather the cause of spraying, as in (5) below. In this structure, the crucial truth-maker is that the subject be the cause of some spraying, not that they be moving or not moving.

5. Sue sprayed paint on the wall.

So, what about our headline? In the situation described by the news story, the woman emerged from the hospital in the normal human fashion. At least, she was corporeal enough to subsequently 'flee' the scene. Thus, her motion probably occurred in a normal human fashion, like walking or running or strolling or swaggering or similar. The motion itself didn't occur in a spraying fashion. Rather, the woman was the cause of spraying, which doesn't necessarily involve any motion.

So, the situation is one in which the woman is doing some (non-motion-entailing) spraying, and simultaneously moving out of the hospital. Her motion is itself not accomplished in a spraying manner. This is precisely the situation in which an ersatz direct object, like her way is required. He sprayed out of the wood chipper, yes. (Thank you, Coens!) She sprayed out of the hospital, no.

So, there you go: The headline writer has wantonly violated the Direct Object Restriction on the English manner-of-motion construction. How rude.1

1The Direct Object Restriction observation is due to work by Beth Levin and Malka Rappaport Hovav, who know all that there is to know about what kinds of tricks can be played with English verbs. Update! Beth writes to remind me that ACTUALLY this generalization was first formulated by Jane Simpson, in her 1983 paper “Resultatives” published in L. Levin, M. Rappaport, and A. Zaenan (eds), Papers
in Lexical Functional Grammar. Bloomington: Indiana University Linguistics Club,
143-157. Many apologies, Jane! Beth and Malka did name it the DOR, though. Ray Jackendoff is the go-to guy for the way-construction.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Purple haze, all in my brain (crosspost from LL)

Parsing's a bitch, ain't it? At least, that's the hook for a recent Newsweek article about a theory of the brain's mechanism for telling time, which involves tracking signal propogation in neurons following perceptual events, or something; it was a bit hard to tell from the article's description.

On the researcher's homepages there's some nice java animations and sound files, suitable for intriguing undergraduates, illustrating the brain's temporal abillities. One of them shows that timing is important in speech perception. If an [s] sound is followed by a few milliseconds of silence and then by the vowel [i], the listener perceives the [s] as the lone onset consonant in a syllable [si]. If the [s] is separated from the [i] by just a few more milliseconds of silence, on the other hand, the listener perceives the silence as a voiceless stop between the [s] and the [i]. You get the impression of having heard the syllable [sti], instead of [s..i]. The point seems to be that in order to perform this feat, the brain has to have some quite sensitive mechanism for distinguishing small temporal intervals.

The Newsweek article starts off with a famous mondegreen to lure the reader, but then doesn't do anything to explain how that particular misparse is related to the question of timing. Never fear, though, Language Log is here!

So, here's the mondegreen in question:

Acting funny, but I don't know why

Jimi sounds like he's saying, "Scuse me, while I kiss this guy", when in fact the lyric is "Scuse me, while I kiss the sky". That is, the listener mishears the sequence




Now, it is a puzzle why this would happen. One doesn't normally mishear /g/ for /k/ or vice versa; you wouldn't mix up 'coat' and 'goat', for example, in the usual case. But in the case of Purple Haze, some particularities of English pronunciation are at work to mislead you.

/k/ and /g/ are usually described as being pronounced exactly alike except for the vibration of the vocal cords: /k/ is voiceless and /g/ is voiced. Otherwise everything about the configuration of the tongue and oral cavity are identical -- they're both velar stops. In fact, however, there's more than one way to skin a /k/ in English, and some /k/s are more like /g/ than others.

English voiceless stops are pronounced in several different ways depending on their position in the syllable. A voiceless stop alone at the beginning of a syllable gets an extra oomph, an extra puff of air, making for a longer, more perceptible period of voicelessness before the vowel sound starts up (a longer "Voice Onset Time"). That extra puff of air is called aspiration, for those of you keeping track at home, and is transcribed with a superscripted 'h' after the consonant: [kh]. In coat, e.g., that initial /k/ is aspirated, so it's not pronounced just [kowt], but rather [khowt], when you really get down to it. That aspiration really makes the voicelessness of the /k/ stand out and sound quite different from the voiced /g/ at the beginning of 'goat', [gowt]. You'd never get them mixed up.

The trick is, the aspiration doesn't show up everywhere. Voiceless stops are notaspirated when they occur after an /s/ at the beginning of a syllable. (You can feel the difference if you put your hand in front of your face and alternate saying 'pot', [phɑt], and 'spot' [spɑt] — in the first you should feel the puff on /p/ but not in the second). In such cases, the absence of the little puff of air means that the voiceless period associated with the stop is shorter and less perceptible—that is, the /k/ sound following /s/ in complex syllable onsets sounds a lot more like a /g/ than other /k/s do.

This isn't normally a problem, because there aren't any syllables in English that begin with /sg/ -- that's not a legal English onset consonant cluster. But in connected speech, you might get a word that ends in a vowel (like the) in front of a word that starts /sk/ (like sky)...and in the right circumstances, the listener might think that the /s/ belonged with the preceding word that ended in the vowel, for instance if there's a very frequent alternate word, suitable to the syntactic and semantic context, that sounds just like the vowel-ending word but ending in an /s/ (like this).

Imagine the listener got as far as making that mistake, of understanding the /s/ as part of the previous word, hearing this ... rather than the s... Then the next problem they'd have to solve would be to try to identify the next consonant in line in the speech stream. It's definitely a velar stop -- but is it /k/ or /g/? "Well," their perceptual system reasons to itself, "if it were a /k/ at beginning a word like this, it would be aspirated -- I'd expect a longer period of voicelessness right here. Given that there's not too much voicelessness, I guess it must be a /g/." And presto! 'kiss the sky' turns into 'kiss this guy'.


So it does all have to do with timing after all -- the brain has to detect the difference between 30ms of voicelessness and 60ms of voicelessness, and the research described in the Newsweek article is about figuring out how it pulls that off.

Oddly enough, just as Prof. Shuy was posting the Newsweek clipping on the bulletin board next to the water cooler, I was reading a blog post all about this exact same thing over at In A Word: It's all about persbective. How would you spell that word of Mary Poppins'?

1Of course it's not really thinking this. It's just trying to settle on a pattern of activation that corresponds to a sensible linguistic representation for that stream of sound, given all the contextual factors involved. 'Kiss the sky' and 'kiss this guy' are two competing representations that are strongly activated given Jimi's sound waves. In fact, probably '...kiss this guy' gets an activation edge from the semantic context. Kissing is usually involves an animate direct object, after all. Those who hear 'kiss this guy' are seriously underestimating the degree to which the narrator in the song is acting funny.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Language cartoon of today

...or is it yesterday? Maybe even tomorrow by the time I hit the 'publish' button. Today's linguistic cartoon theme: deixis, or words with a built-in contextual dependence as a core component of their meaning.

Alice showed that she knew what this was all about when she heard about the jam. It was ok, though; she didn't want any anyways.