25 June 2005

Tangents on toast (click here for original article)

Okay, I've been planning a post on modals and auxiliaries (what I mostly work on) but I have been sidetracked by toast. The title article comes from the excellent Language Log (a site I highly recommend to anyone with an interest in language). It seems to me that the difference here is between construals as objects, and as processes. Toast, for instance, is generally conceived of as an object...if I say "We had toast for breakfast" you're unlikely to ask "What kind?", whereas such a query is perfectly reasonable if I say "We had wine with dinner" or "My mother makes the best stew".

You can actually craft examples structurally identical to those questioned in the article if you either expand or narrow the scope, both cases that (to me) reflect processes. For instance, you can say "Toast prepared over an open fire isn't common these days" or else "the toast served at the Ritz is always hot". Both of these are fine for me, syntactically and semantically. I propose this is because they refer to processes.

I think further evidence comes from beer examples. If I say, "The beer at the Mitre Inn is always cold", I'm referring to a process; that of serving the beer. I know it's warm when it's delivered, and I know it'll be warm if I leave it for an hour, but at the output of the process (here, that of serving) it is and always is at condition A, A being 'cold'. This can be extended by analogy to cover the rest of the examples. It also excludes the bad examples...the toast that hits the floor is not related to the process that creates 'toast'.

I think syntacticians like semantics because we enjoy things even more apparently random and unconstrained than syntax.

And if anyone visits Cambridge, I also recommend the Mitre. The lager is in fact always cold, and the bartenders are friendly, and achingly beautiful.

14 June 2005

Okay, something about language...

But DIRTY language. So don't read if you're sensitive of disposition.

One of the most fascinating aspects of human language, as a syntactician, is what I call asyntactic language. That is, elements of language that don't fit in to syntax. And there are a lot of these elements, which we tend not to think of, because they get used too often to be truly noticed. Everyone probably had grammar classes, where we were taught some fairly rubbish things. For instance, 'a noun is a person, place, thing, or idea'. Right. So what's 'destruction'? It's an action, right? Actions are verbs, according to prim Miss Smith and her HBJ textbook. But is 'to seem' an action? Many verbs denote states...feel, love, look, etc. So, here's the first assumption: everything we think we know about language is either wrong, or so simplistic as to be useless.

The only good diagnostic for category (Noun, Verb, Adjectival, Preposition, et al). is modification and placement. So we know it's a noun if it acts like a noun. So in a sentence like 'the burning of books is disgusting', burning is a noun...it takes a determiner, and only nouns do that. Also, it takes an adjective and not an adverb: the constant burning of books vs. constantly burning books.

Right. With me so far? But some words are screwy. Greeting words, like 'hello, good bye' etc. They have no category. Exclamations...what is 'ouch'? A verb? Nah.

Finally, what are obscenities? If I stub my toe and say 'damn!', am I really asking for something to be damned? If I say, 'get in the damn house', the standard argument would say that I'm eliding the end of 'damned', which is a participial adjective. But is it? I can say 'I don't give a damn' which is quite clearly a noun.

Most interestingly, in English, only a few words can fill the role of infix. Many languages have these, but in English, they're all swear words. The best in American English is 'fucking'. If you ask me if I want a beer, I can reply 'abso-fucking-lutely'. If you tell me the Washington Nationals are in first place in the NL East, I can say 'un-fucking-believable'.

But note that this is not random infixing. It can go in one place and one place only. It gets technical here, but it has to do with the stressed syllable. So if you were to say 'ab-fucking-solutely' or 'absolute-fucking-ly', you'd at best get some strange looks.

What am I getting at? This to me fits in nicely with some of Derek Bickerton's work on proto-language. That is, the asyntactic language humans had before syntax evolved (and I'll post on both language acquisition and evolution soon). Language (and communication systems in general) seem to evolve with simple, context neutral expressions, with no displacement. So in this world of protolanguage, if I say 'meat', it could mean 'you and I will go hunt' but never 'Tom and I will go hunt.' If I say 'cook' it means 'the women and children will cook the food', never 'will there be food?' or 'who oh who will cook?'. This is the bee-dance stage of human language. What's interesting is that we still have it: If I say 'FUCK!' you'll know I'm upset. It has no context, and no grammar (I should add I'm referring here only to the expletive usage; obviously, 'fuck' as a verb meaning 'have intercourse with' is different).

Some interesting research comes from people who have suffered strokes, or brain trauma. Depending on where the damage is, you may lose speech. But not all language; if you suffer trauma near Broca's region, you're likely to lose a lot of your grammatical capacity. You'll probably still have the 'big' words with lots of meaning, but the grammatical words (auxiliary verbs, prepositions, determiners, etc.) will be gone. Other impairments allow fluid speech with no real meaning (often called 'verbal diarrhea syndrome', and it's intimidating to hear, I assure you.). But almost never do people lose the capacity to swear.

I haven't got on to the subject of Tourette's yet, but that's more evidence for an extralinguisitc, possibly primitive, language module with a limited inventory...obscenities, greeting words, and other verbal space fillers (phatic speech). But I think it's nice evolution left us with a ready response when we stub our toes.

UPDATE: A colleague and I were discussing this phemonenon today over afternoon pints (the best kind of pints, if you ask me) and are considering writing a conference paper on it. If so, I shall insist it be called 'A discourse on the nature of fucking'.

13 June 2005

A la recherche du temps perdu

I was engaging in the favoured activity of men my age the other day...looking up websites of the toys I had as a child. Growing up in America in the 80s, I was there at the beginning of a lot of boy's toys...4" action figures, Transformers, etc...looking at the images and histories of these toys, it occurred to me that I had a lot of them. A LOT of them. Now, we weren't rich...and I remember that other boys seemed to have MORE toys than I did, an injustice at the time I thought unparalleled in human history. But looking back...man, I can't believe my parents bought me so many things. Things I can't even remember...looking at the websites devoted to these various things, not a page would go by without me thinking, "Hey! I had that! I'd forgotten ALL ABOUT that!".

So I want to thank my parents for buying me all those things. I didn't know how lucky I was then; I do now. And I want to assure you that they were fun, incredibly fun.

And if you're a parent, thanks for buying your kids toys. Not just educational toys, but just stupid, fun toys they want. Sure, they may drive you crazy with them, and they hurt to step on, but it's probably worth it in the end.

Also, I really, REALLY want to play with legos right now. Or some Transformers.

11 June 2005

Things you never hear

I was inspired by something I read over at the Dean's blog, Confessions of a Community College Dean, which pointed out you will never encounter the statement 'Faculty morale is high.' I was speculating on what else might never be heard in the hallowed halls...

'I'd love to serve on that committee.'
'I say we hold our meetings at lunchtime. Or at the end of the day. Either's good.'
'Is once a term enough? Maybe it should be weekly.'
'How will this affect support staff?'
'This year's intake is so much better than last year's.'
'Wow...the faculty lounge is so clean and spacious!'
'Do we need to serve drinks at the reception? Wouldn't everyone be happy with coffee?'

I'd love to hear the suggestions of others on this.

10 June 2005


I just got around to taking the default link to Google News off the sidebar. Why does Blogger assume that this makes a good default? Are they getting paid for it, at least? Do they think people who read blogs will look at the links and say, "What is this 'google' of which you speak? Perhaps it will help increase my on-line productivity."

I don't know.

Huh? Click here to be bewildered...

So I stumbled across this link today...apparently, the atheist community needs leaders. What? What sense does that make? Atheism is not a religion. It is the act of not believing in something. To borrow a line from the Two Percent crew, saying atheism is a religion is like saying my hobby is not collecting stamps. Saying it needs leadership is like saying I should spend time and effort not collecting stamps, and encouraging others not to collect them as well. I think sometimes that people in organized religion become as institutionalized as people in academia, or government; you become unable to see the world in any other way; you project the structure of your own world onto the rest of it.

Being an atheist is simple. Just don't believe in any of the possible gods.

First question

So, I know what a good undergraduate dissertation is. It demonstrates an excellent command of the core concepts, shows some connective thinking, presents the data correctly, is properly referenced, and demonstrates at least some originality. And I know what a good doctoral dissertation is, all of those things except wholly original. But what in the name of god is a good master's thesis? It's the middle child of research. Is it a baby PhD? Or a more mature undergrad diss? I get asked this on occasion, and I'd love a good answer.