May 31, 2011

Why bilingualism is good for you

One cannot say it often enough: Bilingualism is good for you. And that's not just because it's fun to be able to talk to the French in French. From a NYT-interview with psycholinguist Ellen Bialystok:
One of your most startling recent findings is that bilingualism helps forestall the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. How did you come to learn this?
Read the answer here.

But be aware that while Bialystok uses a wide definition of bilingualism (encompassing speakers who did not grow up bilingual), using a little high school French now and again doesn't give you the same benefits: "You have to use both languages all the time. You won’t get the bilingual benefit from occasional use."

Bialystok concludes:
There are two major reasons people should pass their heritage language onto children. First, it connects children to their ancestors. The second is my research: Bilingualism is good for you. It makes brains stronger. It is brain exercise. 

May 30, 2011

The most complex word in the English language

What is the word with the most meanings in the  English language? Surely it must be a verb, nouns tend to have not more than a handful of meanings, if you don't count metaphorical uses. Surely it must be a one-syllable verb, because these are the words that get used most often, taking on new meanings, combining easily with different noun and adjective phrases. Could it be a semantically bleached verb like get or put, verbs that need to be followed by something to take on a concrete sense of meaning?
Well, according to the O.E.D.’s chief editor, John Simpson, we now have a winner — and a winner that may well say something about the current state of English-speaking humankind. For while in the first edition of the O.E.D., in 1928, that richest-of-all-words was “set” (75 columns of type, some 200 senses), the victor in today’s rather more frantic and uncongenial world is, without a doubt, the three-letter word “run.”
It took Peter Gilliver, the O.E.D. lexicographer working on the letter R, more than nine months harnessed to the duties of what Samuel Johnson once called “a harmless drudge” (plus many more months of preparatory research) to work out what he believes are all the meanings of “run.” And though some of the senses and their derivations try him — Why does a dressmaker run up a frock? Why run through a varlet with a sword? How come you run a fence around a field? Why, indeed, run this essay? — Mr. Gilliver has finally calculated that there are for the verb-form alone of “run” no fewer than 645 meanings. A record. 
Does this run counter to your expectations?

May 28, 2011

What happened on 5/20?

Schnaufblog is a quiet little blog. I don't advertise this blog anywhere. I keep it quite anonymous. It doesn't have many (or any?) comments. I mainly get hits for my postings on "Spellbound -- Where are they now?" and "Where do peanuts come from?" But something happened last week that sent many people to this post ("That's Chevrolet to you"), illustrated with a picture of The Village People, mostly visitors from the UK.
433 visitors in one hour, to be precise.

Still can't figure it out.

May 25, 2011

Sophie, Solomon, Layla, Luke, Gracie, Sadie and Ivan, Sunny and Lauren

Let's give a shout out to a powerful dog lover, who, after 25 years of a history-making TV, will host her final talk show today.

Hardcore Oprah fans will recognize the names listed above as the names of the star's dogs (four of them cocker spaniels, three of them golden retrievers, and two springer spaniels, the most recent addition to the Winfrey household, adopted from a Chicago shelter).

Does anyone have any doubts that one of her dogs will make an appearance at her final show today?

May 21, 2011

How not to become President, 4 years later

4 years ago, I wrote about the story told by Mitt Romney's son, Tagg, about the day the family strapped their Irish setter, Seamus, to the roof of their station wagon when they went on vacation. I said that Americans like their presidents to have dogs and to treat their dogs well. And I predicted that this story would come to haunt Mitt Romney.

I was right. In particular, NYT op-ed columnist Gail Collins seems to have made it her mission to mention Seamus-the-dog-on-the-roof every time she writes about Mitt Romney. She wrote about it in 2007 ("every time I see him, all I can think about is Seamus the dog"), in 2008 ("I’m going to have to get through the rest of the year without ever again referring to the fact that Romney once drove to Canada with the family dog, Seamus, strapped to the roof of the car."), in April of 2011 ("there is not a single mention in [Romney's book] 'No Apology' of the fact that Romney once drove to Canada with the family Irish setter strapped to the roof of the car"), and in her most recent quiz she brings up that fact

Alas, she is not the only one who thinks that proudly announcing that one strapped the family dog to the roof of one's car on the way to Canada does not really demonstrate presidential qualities. There's even a blog called "Dogs against Romney." (Seamus himself is not one of them, he passed away.)

Edited to add: She has done it again! In her op-ed on 5/28/11, Gail Collins compares two potential GOP candidates, Mitt Romney and Rick Perry, the Governor of Texas.
Who is this man called Rick? He is, in his own words, “the kind of guy who goes jogging in the morning packing a Ruger .380 with laser sights and loaded with hollow point bullets, and shoots a coyote that is threatening his daughter’s dog.” That really happened. In fact, it was possibly the high point of Perry’s political career. You can see the attraction. Try to imagine the Republican convention being asked to choose between Mitt Romney, who once drove to Canada with the family dog strapped to the roof of his car, and the guy who shot a puppy-eating coyote. With a Ruger .380 with laser sights!
In the end, however, she doesn't think too highly of the puppy-saving candidate either:
If Perry were elected president, perhaps he would do for the entire United States what he’s done for Texas, which ranks first in the nation in the percentage of the population without health insurance, and 45th in high school completion. We could return to grass-roots, state-driven environmental regulations, the kind that have made Texas the nation’s leader in clean-water permit violations, hazardous waste spills and toxic emissions from manufacturing facilities. But the coyotes would really have to watch out.

Dear Trader Joe's

Your newsletter is called "The Fearless Flyer," but when it comes to grammar judgments, you're everything but. 

Your promise that you know that "it is wrong to end a sentence with a preposition" is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which linguists will not put. (This -- purposefully ungrammatical -- phrase is famously attributed to Winston Churchill, but according to Ben Zimmer it may very well just be an anecdote.)  It is perfectly fine in English to prepose a noun phrase and end a sentence on a preposition (the construction is called "preposition stranding"). Think about it: Would you rather say "What are you looking at?" or "At what are you looking?" The second sentence sounds much more formal and also a bit clumsy, the first one is much more natural. 

(Read more about preposition stranding vs. pied piping on Language Log.)

It cannot be said often enough: There is no rule against ending a sentence on a preposition in English. That's where it's at. Just ask Sam Cooke.