Because cheese.

Since my Because Reasons post, I’ve been collecting examples. I’m sure a search would turn up more, but I’m enjoying collecting them in their native habitats.

“well, okay, maybe not the dairy free part, because cheese”

This was a sentence fragment from an online messageboard.

“I had catastrophic coverage, but no maternity coverage (private insurance because self-employed)…”

Also a sentence from an online messageboard. This sentence is ambiguous syntactically; it could actually be from an older pattern which is referred to in the Language Log post, a kind of “x because y” pattern.

Because, honestly, FUCK the whole idea of cooking an expensive and time-consuming holiday meal for people who cancel at the last minute because: “paperwork.”

But that’s okay, because – bourbon.

These were also sourced from the same messageboard, and are interesting because internal punctuation.* Internal punctuation is also found in a lot of the Languange Log examples. It suggests that the writer knows that something is being elided, at least semantically and perhaps syntactically.

“If you want to go to the next step in the route manually, you now swipe from left to right instead of tapping on the arrow. Because gestures.

This is from an article about Google Maps published in July 2013.

No, go away. I just want a salad because ranch.

Eating: A manifesto, from Rookie Magazine, July 2012

The most important thing about questpunk is to get plenty of sleep, because dreams.

A tweet from October 2013.

“Why is it spelled that way?”
“Because English.”

This one was a verbal exchange between a coworker paraphrasing her six-year-old, and me.

“Why there is a baby rat in my closet?”
“Because cats.”

Quoted dialogue from a Facebook post written by a friend of mine, November 2013.

Hope to see everybody at @busproject‘s “Jingle Bus” this year! Because DEMOCRACY.

Also a tweet, from November 2013.

*Originally I wrote this in Standard English as “because of the internal punctuation”, but I couldn’t resist the temptation to change it.

The professional hazards of a linguist: Chomsky

One of the professional hazards of being a linguist is being asked what you think of Chomsky.* I never have a good answer because we didn’t actually study Chomsky in school. The linguistics department at Rice does what’s called ‘functional linguistics’, and Chomsky is ‘formal linguistics’. The names have to do with having different opinions about how language evolved and is produced, and why languages are similar to each other, but the explanation is a little esoteric.** At any rate, we didn’t learn much about him, and I didn’t get any clear idea of what he thought until later, when I read an interesting book called The Linguistics Wars.

Today, though, I realized on re-reading The Most Human Human that the author captures a distinction in computer science that I wasn’t aware of, which has a lot of similarity to the way the formal/functional distinction plays out in practice (as opposd to the esoteric theory): the distinction between computability theory and complexity theory. In computability theory, your concern is determining what is possible or impossible to compute, according to the principles of computation. Complexity theory deals with whether you could actually build a computer that could compute something, in, say, less than the total age of the universe. Chomskyan linguistics is similar to computability theory, and the type of linguistics I studied is more similar to complexity theory. Chomsky wasn’t interested in linguistic performance — he’s very clear about that. He studied what is and isn’t possible in language, under very idealized conditions. In practice, it means he mostly studied nicely-written sentences, and determined if they were allowed or not, and what that means about the language. (So, also, he mostly studies syntax.) Functional linguists study something more like complexity theory: what people actually do, when they’re speaking and writing, under the often sub-ideal conditions of the world. So they study speech errors and hesitations and the circumstances under which a seemingly-nonsensical sentence might make perfect sense and a lot of things that Chomskyans tend to just say are irrelevant.

I find this comparison very helpful, because (along with a better grounding in Chomskyan theory that I got from reading The Linguistics Wars) it helped me get beyond my knee-jerk belief that Chomsky is clearly irrelevant. Computability theory is very interesting. It’s where things like the Halting Problem and Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem live. But computability is sometimes not very relevant, if you could compute something but it would require more time than the age of the universe. Likewise, there are very large domains of linguistic endeavor that Chomsky simply ignored. Where I disagree with him is that he tended to think that these areas are not important at all — that performance is incidental — whereas I think it’s critical to understanding what language really is. So my answer is something like: Chomsky is good as far as he goes, but he doesn’t go very far in the real world — the way that computability theory is great as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go very far in the real world in which you’d like your computer program to finish before next week (let alone before the end of the universe).

* Not the most common one, though; that would be the question “How many languages do you speak?” My answer to this is decidedly unimpressive.

** In short: Functional linguists think it’s because language serves a common function, regardless of its specific implementation (that function being human communication), and that it evolved from and/or is produced by a collection of adapted general skills. Formal linguists believe that languages are similar because we all have a specific brain module called a language acquisition device — ie, that language is a specialized skill, not a general one, and that languages are similar because they’re all produced by this special module. I think it’s possible that both are true, although having been educated by functionalists, I tend to wonder whether the formal bit is actually necessary.

The problem is that DFW really doesn’t hit the mark

The Urbanophile reprinted a post from the Where Blog (which looks like a neat blog) that caught my attention, since it drew a comparison between language and urban development.

I don’t know that much about urban development yet, but it fascinates me, and I do know something about language. The problem is that the something that I know suggests that this may be a poor analogy.

Drew writes:

Hence DFW’s conclusion. We can’t assume those planning our cities are credible just because they’re making the plans. But we need rules and guidance—an entirely hands-off approach will create interesting cities with multitudes of serious problems.

Here he’s analogizing between urban planners and prescriptive linguists. But David Foster Wallace’s essay (and further works), wherein he arrives at the conclusion that prescriptivism is needed, has been taken apart by better linguists and bloggers than I, Language Log and Language Hat. Language Log has a whole category called Prescriptivist Poppycock.

This all suggests a rather different analogy between urban planners and prescriptivists, namely that they are talking nonsense well over half the time and for the most part we’d be better off without them, because the object of their concern is perfectly capable of developing organically and effectively, entirely on its own, in ways that serve its function.

For what it’s worth, that doesn’t strike me as particularly valid either. But since it’s an equally good, or maybe better, description of the relationship of prescriptivists to language, I’d recommend that urbanists be careful taking prescriptivists as their model!

Nevertheless, I think Drew makes a valid point in the final paragraph:

Maybe this is why urbanists keep returning to Jane Jacobs. She reconciles these approaches in The Death and Life of Great American Cities by merging a Descriptivist’s eye for the way cities actually are (not how they should be) with a Prescriptivist’s desire to make cities better—by nurturing what’s already good in those cities rather than trying to recreate them.

In agreeing with the final idea, I might resurrect the analogy at a more sophisticated level: both urban planners and prescriptivists ostensibly want to make things better, and both can easily end up doing nothing of the sort, because the systems they are trying to manipulate are organic and complex and don’t necessarily respond the way you expect to manipulation.

Someone’s ones

I noticed this morning that in a conversation yesterday I used the phrase “some ones that” when I could just as easily have some “some that” (or “ones that”):

I bought new gloves
some ones from REI that are lobster-claw

I was curious to see if this is common. It’s at least common enough that most of the top ten Google hits for “some ones that” are for this construction. It gets fewer hits than “some that”, which is clearly the more straightforward and official construction (all the “some ones that” hits are clearly from user-created content, compared to “some that” which brings up titles of articles, books, etc.

It may not really be produced intentionally — perhaps we are going to say “some [nouns] that” but realize that the referent is too close? I’m not always a fan of assuming people don’t intend to produce what they produced, but I don’t see otherwise why “some that” wouldn’t be produced instead.

Back to happier news

Language Log extols Edinburgh Uni’s results in the UK’s RAE

“But with these figures out, even these shy people will have to admit, if pressed, that if you want to study in the biggest language sciences community in the U.K., and the best one as judged by volume of work judged to be of world-leading quality, it looks like you should make plans to head for Edinburgh.”

As a graduate, all I can say is, heck yeah.

A poet of language science

I don’t often create posts that involve extensive quotations from other blogs, but I so enjoyed Prof. Pullum’s Language Log entry on vagueness and British weather that I feel compelled to quote it here:

Those many idealistic souls who imagine that we would do better with a language that was free of vagueness and ambiguity, its terms tightly defined so that the meaning of what we said would always be sharp and clear, forget about tasks like trying to summarize British weather in a few seconds before the news headlines. In that context you’re glad of vague hand-waving idioms of generality like by and large, and hedging adverbs like pretty, and sweeping emotion-laden adjectives ranging from human psychology to impressionistic meteorology, like miserable.

The weather as I write (it’s after 9 a.m. now, so already the sky is light here in Scotland) is cool and damp. There is a hint of sunshine from behind the thin cloud cover. Edinburgh castle will look extraordinary as always, a brooding grey mass of damp stone a thousand years old overlooking the Princes Street gardens, with hints of sun catching it from some low angle. It’s extraordinarily beautiful. Yes, there will be rain and wind some time today, and freezing temperatures in some parts of the country. But it’s easier to enjoy than it is to summarize. Humphrys was just enacting the usual British linguistic ritual of weather-grumbling. The weather isn’t literally misery-inducing. I take a certain delight in it.

In a few beautifully-constructed phrases, Prof. Pullum evokes the beauty of Edinburgh, captures the enjoyable misery of British weather, and explains the need for linguistic ambiguity. He shows himself to be a master of language in more than the purely scientific sense.

Election 2008: two linguistic moments

This is my personal blog, not a topical blog, but I find myself unable to say anything terribly original or interesting about the election per se. Like many Californians, I am thrilled by Obama’s election, and terribly disappointed that it looks like Prop 8 may pass. However! They have not counted my ballot yet (vote-by-mail ballots submitted on Election Day have not been counted; more than 3 million ballots remain to be counted) so I will hold out a small hope yet. Other smaller happinesses (Prop 1A, Prop 2) abound. So, I resort to interesting linguistics:

“It felt very, like, moving.”

I heard this on the Caltrain shuttle tonight, and it constitutes one amusing linguistic tidbit regarding the election. No doubt I’ve said things that sounded equally empty-headed because I put ‘like’ in at an inopportune moment, but this one struck me as funny.

The other interesting linguistic bit was McCain’s use of “an historic” in his speech, and what happened to it afterwards. We were watching Fox News at the time (why? I don’t know) and they were putting pull quotes in the little “Alert” box. When they did this, they changed it to “a historic moment”. MSNBC, though, has the correct version in their story.

“An historic” is an interesting pattern. I don’t use it; it’s almost exclusively used by older people, who I think learned, or were explicitly taught, to use “an” before words starting with H (that are not stressed on the first syllable, a restriction I was not aware of explicitly until looking it up for this entry). It’s described well on this page. The origin is from British h-dropping, which later receded, leaving this little island of confusion. I was surprised to see Fox News ‘correcting’ McCain’s correct, if less common, usage. Did they do it for familiarity? Or because they really thought he misspoke?

A cooler title

I really enjoy being a bona fide professional linguist, with said title on my business card, but I have found a title that is, I think, even cooler, belonging to Jesse Sheidlower (whose surname I would dearly love to know how to pronounce). Jesse is, according to his byline on this Slate article about Sarah Palin’s accent, editor at large of the Oxford English Dictionary. Beat that for pure awesome.

I never knew there was an Alaskan accent (or even, more than one). You learn something new every day.

Peeve cubed

I don’t plan to make a habit of this, but I would like to say that I think Language Log has thoroughly worn out its/their welcome on entries that solely constitute being peeved by people being peeved about (various things) about language.

It’s still moderately interesting when they explore the history and usage of the construction that the person is peeved about, but this entry of Pullum’s (don’t go read it, I link only for the record) is content-free except for complaining (sans data) that there is no reason to be peeved about these peeves. This is almost vacuous and is certainly obvious considering the list is so long and includes so many inoffensive words and phrases.

This will be the last time that I peeveblog about peeveblogging about peeves.

Getting off-topic

I thought I might be imagining it, but I don’t think so anymore: Language Log is getting less focused and less good than it used to be.

Bill Poser today wrote an entry about how runners hear the start gun at different times because of the speed of sound in air. The ‘hook’ used to relate this to linguistics is that if people studied acoustic phonetics, they would know this was a problem.

Yes…but if they studied physics, or even general science, they would know this too. I am not impressed with this as a linguistics hook. Sorry, but Language Log is supposed to be about linguistics, not about the fairness of Olympic track racing. Read down the list of recent entries, and then browse through a segment of LL Classic and see what you think about their relative interestingness.

I don’t know if this is an affliction common to blogs, but I’ve seen it happen to several. BoingBoing, which was once what its tagline claims (a directory of wonderful things) has become highly political. I still find it interesting to check out, but the slant on the politics is also high (unclear incidents of civil liberty violations are made to sound highly inflammatory), and that makes it even less interesting than just politics (which after all is also interesting, though perhaps not always wonderful).

Both BB and LL also added comments fairly recently. The comments sections are generally better than average, but they rarely add much to the original entry. I preferred both blogs when you had to email the original poster to comment, even though your words were subject to their whims. (My comments were mentioned or published a couple of times on both BB and LL, which was neat, but that’s neither here nor there.) This has contributed to my current feelings about their decline — which is funny because I can always just skip the comments if I don’t want to read them.