November 17, 2015

New trend: Word of the year is not a word

It's WOTY season again. Oxford Dictionaries enters with a splash: Their Word of the Year is.... not a word at all. It's a pictograph, the "Face with Tears of Joy" emoij.

I find this rather disappointing. Where to begin? For a start, it's not a word, at least not in the traditional sense of the, eh, word. (Just as the hashtag #blacklivesmatter -- voted "Word of the Year" by the American Dialect Society last year -- is not a word. Just as the new "because" construction -- voted "Word of the Year" by the American Dialect Society in 2013 -- is not a word.) Call me old schook, but what's wrong with trying to find an actual word that "best reflected the ethos, mood, and preoccupations of 2015"?

Second, I'm having a really hard time to accept that the "ethos, mood, and preoccupation of 2015" is best characterized by an overflowing expression of joy. Perhaps it's a matter of timing: The Oxford announcement came three days after the Paris/Beirut attacks. I've seen a lot of emojis on my screen, but they were not of the "Face with Tears of Joy" kind.

July 09, 2015

More pictures of Bo

The White House now allows tourists to take inside pictures. It was clear how this would play out:

The first family’s dog Bo greeted visitors to the White House on Wednesday as a four-decade-old ban on taking photographs during tours was rescinded. CreditDoug Mills/The New York Times

July 02, 2015

Ghosts of relationships past

When celebrities split up, they enrich the vocabulary of English. Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin gave us the much-derided expression "conscious uncoupling" in 2014 ("We have always conducted our relationship privately, and we hope that as we consciously uncouple and coparent, we will be able to continue in the same manner"), which Urban Dictionary defines as "A bullshit term used by people who take a relationship/marriage and any children involved lightly to excuse their behavior to people that they consider themselves above."

Charlize Theron and Sean Penn thankfully (yes, that's 'thankfully' as a sentence adverb) did not issue a pompous statement when they, but they helped popularize the term "ghosting," which is defined by the NY Times as "ending a romantic relationship by cutting off all contact and ignoring the former partner’s attempts to reach out."

I'm not sure which strategy is best from a psychological viewpoint, but "ghosting" is definitely the better word. 

June 26, 2015


What is marriage? Who gets to marry -- in the very practical enjoying-the-benefits-of-marital-status sense, especially with regard to "taxation; inheritance and property rights; rules of intestate succession; spousal privilege in the law of evidence; hospital access; medical decisionmaking authority; adoption rights; the rights and benefits of survivors; birth and death certificates; professional ethics rules; campaign finance restrictions; workers’ compensation benefits; health insurance; and child custody, support, and visitation rules?"

The Supreme Court wrote history today by coming to the conclusion that "the right to marry is a fundamental right inherent in the liberty of the person, and under the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment couples of the same-sex may not be deprived of that right and that liberty. The Court now holds that same-sex couples may exercise the fundamental right to marry" and that there is "no lawful basis for a State to refuse to recognize a lawful same-sex marriage performed in another State on the ground of its same-sex character."

Let's see if Merriam-Webster will change its definition of "marriage" by striking the passage referring to "the opposite sex" or by expanding it to refer to "the opposite or same sex."

(1) :  the state of being united to a person of the opposite sex as husband or wife in a consensual and contractual relationship recognized by law (2) :  the state of being united to a person of the same sex in a relationship like that of a traditional marriage marriage

[In case you are wondering how the rainbow became a symbol of the gay pride movement, check out this article on Wikipedia.]

Oh, just cope already!

The NY Times reported yesterday that 12,000 out of 350,000 students in France who took the national high school exam in English had signed a petition that argued that the exam had been too difficult. On reason that was given was that the exam included the verb "cope," for which, so the argument, there is no equivalent in French. (The question was about Ian McEwan's "Atonement," and it was phrased rather straightforwardly: "How is Turner coping with the situation?")


Even if it were true that there is no direct translation for "cope" in French, how does that make the exam question, which is based on rather common words in English and which itself is a rather common question to ask about a character in a novel, difficult?

Is "sibling" a difficult word for French learners of English because French has no direct equivalent (one has to use the expression "frères et sœurs," 'brothers and sisters')?

If you spin this argument further, would it mean that oral proficiency exams should not include dental fricatives (the /th/ sounds, as in "the" or "mouth") because they don't exist in French? (Good luck with finding a text that doesn't include definite articles or demonstratives.)

Does it mean that sentences that include grammatical constructions that do not exist in Standard French, such as preposition stranding ("Is this the man you told me about?"), may not occur in exams?

Puleeze! (Oops, another sibling word.)

June 02, 2015

Spellbound: Where are they now, part 2

“Having watched Spellbound, I realized that several of my competitors weren’t any worse than me ability-wise, but they didn’t have the same advantages—economic privilege, educational background, family dynamics,” she says. “I know that played a big, big role in my success. As a 14-year-old, I really thought I was one of the best spellers out there. In hindsight, I think, yeah, I was a very good speller, but I also had some of the best preparation and resources out there. I had a mom who had a graduate degree in linguistics. Parents who have literally hundreds of books in the house, and who were very motivated to help me succeed.” (Nupur Lapa, Spellbound)
The most popular entry on this blog is a "Where are they now?" post I wrote 5 years ago about the Spellbound kids. The Smithsonian Magazine has a recent update. (Surprise fact: Nupur's mother is a linguist!)

April 18, 2015

Tibetan Mastiff: from prized possession to discarded status symbol

It's terrible when an ancient dog breed becomes a commodity, but it's even worse when that fad is over. It's still worse when this happens in China, where the dog in question may end up in a slaughterhouse rather than a shelter.

The NYT reports that Tibetan Mastiffs, which until recently fetched thousands of dollars as a status symbol characterized as "intelligent" but also "brutal" (and clearly not dogs not suited to living with an average dog owner), now end up in slaughterhouses, where they might be "rendered into hot pot ingredients, imitation leather and the lining for winter gloves."
In some ways, the cooling passion for Tibetan mastiffs reflects the fickleness of a consuming class that adopts and discards new products with abandon. Famed for their ferocity and traditionally associated with free-spirited Tibetan nomads, mastiffs offered their ethnic Han Chinese owners a dose of Himalayan street cred, according to Liz Flora, editor in chief of Jing Daily, a marketing research company in Beijing. “Fads are a huge driving force in China’s luxury market,” she said, adding that “Han Chinese consumers have been willing to pay a premium for anything associated with the romanticism of Tibet.”

About interspecies oxytocin-mediated positive loops

A recent article in Science reported that "gazing behavior from dogs, but not wolves, increased urinary oxytocin concentration in owners, which consequently facilitated owners' affiliation and increased oxytocin concentration in dogs."

In other words, the way dogs look at humans make humans bond more with their dogs (via raising levels of the hormone oxytocin (the 'love hormone,' which is also released in labor), which in turn makes dogs happy (via raising their levels of oxytocin). Surprising news? You decide.

It's interesting to see how this research was written about for a general audience. Who said it best?

And here is the abstract of the original article by Nagasawa et al.:

Oxytocin-gaze positive loop and the coevolution of human-dog bonds
Human-like modes of communication, including mutual gaze, in dogs may have been acquired during domestication with humans. We show that gazing behavior from dogs, but not wolves, increased urinary oxytocin concentrations in owners, which consequently facilitated owners’ affiliation and increased oxytocin concentration in dogs. Further, nasally administered oxytocin increased gazing behavior in dogs, which in turn increased urinary oxytocin concentrations in owners. These findings support the existence of an interspecies oxytocin-mediated positive loop facilitated and modulated by gazing, which may have supported the coevolution of human-dog bonding by engaging common modes of communicating social attachment.

March 31, 2015

Scott Walker allergic to dogs?

We all remember the saga of Seamus, Mitt Romney's dog. Seamus survived being strapped to the roof of the car during a family vacation, but Romney's campaign did not survive the story.

It's very simple: A candidate who doesn't love dogs (or who is perceived as not loving dogs) cannot become President of the United States. Nobody doubted that George Bush adored his dog Barney, everybody remembers the time when labrador Buddy seemed to be the only member of the Clinton family that did not mind being seen with Bill Clinton in public. The current president doesn't quite pull off the role of dog lover, but he loves his daughters and they love their dogs, so he is perceived as sort-of-a-dog-person by extension.

Enter Scott Walker. The NYT reports today (March 31) that Walker is allergic to dogs.
Mr. Walker, who gives a gloomy stump speech filled with "worry," perhaps could use a four-legged image softener of his own. But he is allergic to dog dander, an aide confirmed. And in that, he is running against the long sweep of United States political history.
We will see how this plays out. Walker has already been reported to try to get rid of his Wisconsin accent, perhaps he will now seek a coach that teaches him how to hide/downplay/confront his allergy. If all else fails, he could always carry around a goldfish in a bowl.

March 05, 2015

25 Maps/Trees/Charts about the English Language

Illustrations of the global spread of English, the great vowel shift, the origin of English words, the dialects of American English -- it's nice to see them all assembled in one place.

The most beautiful one is, of course, Minna Sundberg's family tree of Indoeuropean languages that are still spoken or that are mentioned in the context of her comic Stand Still. Stay Silent.

You can order an 11x17" print here ($15) or poster version here (23x28"). A perfect gift for the linguist(s) in your life!

March 01, 2015

"People make fun of dog fashion because it’s bad.”

Half the fun of watching the Westminster Kennel Dog Show is scrutinizing the handlers. Nobody ever seems to be dressed like a person ready to spend time with a dog (think business suits, sequins, and ballet flats). Is it good to know that actually a lot of thought goes into these outfits?

January 23, 2015

January 10, 2015

#blacklivesmatter Word of the Year

What a letdown! The American Dialect Society voted #blacklivesmatter as Word of the Year. Ben Zimmer, chair of the New Words Committee, offers the following argument:

“While #blacklivesmatter may not fit the traditional definition of a word, it demonstrates how powerfully a hashtag can convey a succinct social message... Language scholars are paying attention to the innovative linguistic force of hashtags, and #blacklivesmatter was certainly a forceful example of this in 2014.”
Yes, yes, yes,  crowning a hashtag WOTY certainly draws attention to the innovative linguistic force of hashtags (as does creating the category "hashtag of the year") and  #blacklivesmatter was certainly one of the most relevant hashtags of the year, and yes, there are many linguists who won't make a conceptual distinction between words, phrases, and sentences (they are all "constructions"), but call me old school -- I like the idea of a word as a combination of form (sound, gesture, writing) and meaning (lexical or grammatical) that can combine with other words according to the rules of grammar to form a clause. Hashtags don't have that function, the word "hashtag," on the other hand (WOTY 2013) does.

Alas, a glance at the list of nominations shows that the pool of candidates this year was rather ...shallow.  "Ebola" as a most useful word? "Plastiglomorate" as one of the words most likely to succeed? After last year's vote (for the construction "because NP/AP," which is certainly a cool innovative construction, but not A WORD), I really would have liked to see a better record of linguistic innovation that doesn't require us to really streeeeeetch the meaning of "word."

Edited to add: WOTY goes Style Section of the NY Times ("At the Super Bowl of Linguistics).

January 09, 2015

Selfies and belfies

Selfie was recognized by Oxford Dictionaries as "Word of the Year" 2014. This year, "selfie stick" has bee nominated in the category "most likely to succeed" by the American Dialect Society (the vote takes place tonight).

It would be rather boring, however, to pick a derivative of last year's word. What about a derivative of the derivative? Meet the "Belfie stick," "angled perfectly to give you the ability to snap a great shot of  your dierriere", resulting in a "butt selfie." (Is this a thing?)

The Belfie should come with a sticker "Excuse our French." (The French word for buttocks is spelled "derrière", not "dierriere.")

December 29, 2014

Who's bench?

I see pluralized family names misspelled all the time. People just love to put an apostrophe in front of the plural -s: they sign their letters as coming from "the Miller's" rather than "the Millers." It is much rarer, though, to see a family  name misspelled on a donor plaque like this one.

The rules are very simple, actually: An apostrophe is used mainly in one of the following two situations:

  1. reduction: when a letter is omitted (I have not --> I haven't) 
  2. genitive case (possessive -s): when the concept of possession is expressed (Harry --> Harry's bench)

Unlike the possessive -s the plural -s is added without an apostrophe (one cat, two dogs). The only exception (apart from set expressions like o'clock) are words that are a abbreviations or just letters, especially if they are spelled with uppercase letters (she holds two Ph.D.'s, I got four A's), but not using an apostrophe is also acceptable in these cases (she holds two Ph.D.s).

When both concepts are combined (possession and plual), the plural ending is added first. Since the noun then ends on -s (the Millers), the genitive is typically marked with just an apostrophe (the Millers' house), however, adding another -s is also acceptable, resulting in the sequence -s's (the Millers's). What is not acceptable is what you see in the picture above: using just -s to express plurality and possession.

  • Harry Miller has a house --> Harry Miller's house
  • The Miller family has a house (The Millers have a house) -->  the Millers' house OR the Millers's house, NOT the Miller's house
Final note: When the plural of a noun does not end on an -s (children), the genitive -s is added in the same manner as in the singular (the children's house). Oh, and while we're at it, the genitive interrogative pronoun is spelled whose, never who's (whose house). Who's is a contracted form (who is), not a genitive.

For more fun with apostrophes, see the blog Apostrophe Abuse.

December 20, 2014

December 10, 2014

Linguistic-y holiday gifts

I was asked by a student if I had any recommendations for linguistic-y holiday gifts. Here they are:

1. For your English major friends who would never knowingly split an infinitive:

The cause of most bad writing, Pinker thinks, is not laziness or sloppiness or overexposure to the Internet and video games, but what he calls the curse of knowledge: the writer’s inability to put himself in the reader’s shoes or to imagine that the reader might not know all that the writer knows — the jargon, the shorthand, the slang, the received wisdom.” (The New York Times)

2. For your linguist friends who recently had a baby: 

Michael Bernstein: An ABC for Baby Linguists. Cascadilla Press.

(I couldn't find a good review of the book, but when I showed it in class today, there was a lot of "ooh"-ing and "aah"-ing. I haven't managed to part with my copy yet.)

Throw in two tickets to "Still Alice," a movie starring Julianne Moore as a linguistics professor who is experiencing the onset of Alzheimer's Disease, and your friends will be even more delighted. Promise to babysit their little one while they enjoy their night out, and they will love you forever.

3. For your foodie friends who occasionally read Nate Silver:

Dan Jurafsky: The Language of Food. Norton.


In his hugely entertaining book..  Jurafsky explains that every increase of one letter in the average length of words describing a dish is associated with an increase of 69 cents (42p) in the price of that dish. In a study of 6,500 menus, Jurafsky found that the words "exotic" and "spices" also raise the price of a dish. But "linguistic fillers" like "mouth-watering", "sublime" and "crispy", tend to feature more often on cheap menus. "At the expensive restaurant, you're supposed to assume that the crispy food will be crispy," Jurafsky said in a telephone interview. "The cheaper restaurants are a little worried that you might not know. It's a kind of status anxiety." (The Independent)

4. For your parents, who still wonder what exactly it is that linguists are doing:

Dictionary of American Regional English digital subscription (currently on sale for $75/year).

The Dictionary of American Regional English, which for the last 30 years has been the authoritative source on American colloquialisms and local slang, is now online. As a result, you don’t need to consult the five-volume print edition to drop some fresh folk sayings at parties… The website features a map that lets you browse entries by state (Massachusetts’ page features ‘two-toilet Irish,’ ‘pinkletink’—a young frog on Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket—and ‘joe flogger’) and original audio recordings, thick with twang and drawl, made during the initial round of data collection in the late 1960s.” (Boston Globe)
If your parents live in Wisconsin, also get them this book, edited by three of my esteemed colleagues:

Thomas Purnell, Eric Raimy, and Joe Salmons: Wisconsin Talk. Linguistic Diversity in the Badger State. Univ. of Wisconsin Press.

Beginning with a helpful crash course in linguistics terminology, this collection of essays explores Wisconsin-specific words, local linguistic quirks and the state's Hmong- and Spanish-language groups. (The Isthmus)

For dog-related gifts, consider a portrait by the talented Adriana Willsie. For everyone else, there are caramels.

November 14, 2014

My kind of senior portrait

My dog B., also known as 'Schnauf," 14 years old. Painting by Adriana Willsie.

October 05, 2014

Is Pluto is getting unplutoed?

8 years ago, Pluto was demoted to "dwarf planet." The American Dialect Society even voted the participle "plutoed" as the 2006 word of the year.

Unfortunately, the expression didn't really catch on. And now its basis is being challenged. Members of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics presented three different viewpoints to the public and the audience could vote on which viewpoint they liked best. The result? Pluto should be called a planet, since "a planet is a culturally defined word."
Eight years later, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics decided to revisit the question of "what is a planet?" On September 18th, we hosted a debate among three leading experts in planetary science, each of whom presented their case as to what a planet is or isn't. The goal: to find a definition that the eager public audience could agree on! Science historian Dr. Owen Gingerich, who chaired the IAU planet definition committee, presented the historical viewpoint. Dr. Gareth Williams, associate director of the Minor Planet Center, presented the IAU's viewpoint. And Dr. Dimitar Sasselov, director of the Harvard Origins of Life Initiative, presented the exoplanet scientist's viewpoint. Gingerich argued that "a planet is a culturally defined word that changes over time," and that Pluto is a planet. Williams defended the IAU definition, which declares that Pluto is not a planet. And Sasselov defined a planet as "the smallest spherical lump of matter that formed around stars or stellar remnants," which means Pluto is a planet. After these experts made their best case, the audience got to vote on what a planet is or isn't and whether Pluto is in or out. The results are in, with no hanging chads in sight. According to the audience, Sasselov's definition won the day, and Pluto IS a planet.
Alas, I have my doubts that a public vote will move the International Astronomical Union (IAU) to reconsider its decision that Pluto not be considered a planet. Their introducing the term "dwarf planet" (which is to be considered distinct from, not a subclass of "planet") doesn't exactly indicate that cultural awareness of linguistic terms is something they care about a lot.

October 03, 2014

Everything sells better with a dog...

...especially as we get closer to the holiday season.

However, not many companies are as forward about this strategy as J. Crew:

April 20, 2014

"First Position" -- Where are they now?

This post has got nothing to do with language or dogs. But since the post I wrote about the Spellbound kids ("Where are they now?") is the most popular post on this blog, I thought I might do the same for the kids from the 2011 ballet documentary "First Position," which shares many of the characteristics of Spellbound.

Of the six dancers portrayed in the documentary, 3 (Michaela DePrince, Joan Sebastian Zamora, Rebecca Houseknecht) were old enough to be awarded a scholarship with a prestigious ballet school, the dream prize of every dancer in the competition. 2 of them are still professional dancers.

Michaela DePrince, the dancer from Sierra Leone with the poignant life story, is probably the most established of the dancers. In the 2010 YAGP competition, she won a scholarship with American Ballet Theatre and afterwards received offers from both ABT and the Dance Theatre of Harlem for the 2012-13 season. She picked the latter and had her professional debut in 2012. She became known to a wide audience through a guest appearance in the TV show Dancing with the Stars. According to Wikipedia, she joined the Junior Company Dutch National Ballet in Amsterdam in 2013. In 2014 she moved to the regular company. She also has her own website. And did you know that she used to be a competitive swimmer? Read an interview (and see beautiful pictures) with her here.
Edited to add (Oct. 2014): Her biography, Taking Flight, is coming out this month.
Edited to add (Nov. 2014): NY Times review of 'Taking Flight' here. There is also a version of this book for beginning readers, Ballerina Dreams. I will give both books as Christmas gifts this year, also the 2015 "Dancers among us" calendar, which has a picture of Michaela on the title page.

Joan  Sebastian Zamora, from Colombia, whose picture is on the cover of the First Position DVD, won a scholarship with the School of the Royal Ballet in London and joined the English National Ballet, Britain's foremost touring dance company, in 2013.
See a short video of his recent work here.
Edited to add: In 2015, Joan joined Joffrey Ballet in Chicago.

Rebecca Houseknecht, the all-American princess, did not win a prize at the YAGP, but she was offered a position with Washington Ballet's Studio Company shortly after the competition (the invitation came from one of the judges), which she happily accepted. However, she found that she "didn't like having to dance for my job, as weird as it sounds." After a year, she left the company. According to this article in the Washington Post, she is now studying speech pathology at Towson University, where she also joined the dance squad.

The three younger dancers went on to compete at the YAGP again -- and won awards again. As of 2013, they are still too young to be members of a professional company, but for at least two of them, dancing still pretty much seems to be their career destination.

Miko Fogarty, the determined sister of a less determined brother (and daughter of a very determined mother), has quite a media presence, see her tweets here and her YouTube videos here . (There's quite a bit of fan art about her. ) In 2012, ABC Nightline reported on her third YAGP and in 2013 she won an award in the prestigious Prix de Lausanne and was awarded full scholarships from ballet schools in the US and overseas. In 2013, she was training with the Indiana Ballet Conservatory and with Kaoru Jinushi in Japan. Edited to add: In 2015, Miko joined the Birmingham Royal Ballet as an artist on a one-year contract.

Aran Bell, the gravity-defying 11-year old from Italy, was the winner of the Hope Award in the 2010 YAGP competition (the award for children who are too young to compete for the Grand Prix). A year later, he won the Junior Grand Prix.  He has attended prestigious summer programs and festivals. In 2013, at the age of 15, he performed as part of the dance troupe Intermezzo in New York.According to one source, he has standing offers from four world-class ballet schools: Paris Opera, Royal Ballet, Stuttgart Ballet, and ABT's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School. When will he accept one of them?
Edited to add (Sep. 2014): Aran Bell is now dancing with ABT's studio company, which trains young dancers that are likely to become part of ABT.

Gaya Bommer Yemini, the spirited comtemporary dancer from Israel (who bonded with Aran Bell), went on to win the first prize in the contemporary category at the 2011 YAGP. In 2012-13 she was a scholarship student at the Princess Grace Academy in Monaco. Here's a picture of her from the Academy's Facebook page (dated Oct. 2013 and, sweetly, with a comment by Aran Bell):

April 13, 2014

"for moral behaviors, nouns work better than verbs"

What do nouns and verbs have got to do with "Raising a Moral Child" (the title of an op-ed piece in the Times today)? This: Sometimes, it's the right thing to praise behavior in a child, i.e. an action ("I loved it that you shared your toy"), sometimes it's more effective to praise the child, i.e. a character trait ("I love it that you are a generous person").
Many parents believe it’s important to compliment the behavior, not the child — that way, the child learns to repeat the behavior. Indeed, I know one couple who are careful to say, “That was such a helpful thing to do,” instead of, “You’re a helpful person.” But is that the right approach? In a clever experiment, the researchers Joan E. Grusec and Erica Redler set out to investigate what happens when we commend generous behavior versus generous character. After 7- and 8-year-olds won marbles and donated some to poor children, the experimenter remarked, “Gee, you shared quite a bit.” The researchers randomly assigned the children to receive different types of praise. For some of the children, they praised the action: “It was good that you gave some of your marbles to those poor children. Yes, that was a nice and helpful thing to do.” For others, they praised the character behind the action: “I guess you’re the kind of person who likes to help others whenever you can. Yes, you are a very nice and helpful person.” A couple of weeks later, when faced with more opportunities to give and share, the children were much more generous after their character had been praised than after their actions had been. Praising their character helped them internalize it as part of their identities. The children learned who they were from observing their own actions: I am a helpful person. This dovetails with new research led by the psychologist Christopher J. Bryan, who finds that for moral behaviors, nouns work better than verbsTo get 3- to 6-year-olds to help with a task, rather than inviting them “to help,” it was 22 to 29 percent more effective to encourage them to “be a helper.” Cheating was cut in half when instead of, “Please don’t cheat,” participants were told, “Please don’t be a cheater.” When our actions become a reflection of our character, we lean more heavily toward the moral and generous choices. Over time it can become part of us.
Modelling good behavior also helps. No verbs or nouns needed.
Children learn generosity not by listening to what their role models say, but by observing what they do.