Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Hearing things in The Hunger Games

I went to go see The Hunger Games with my wife over the weekend. It was ok. Well, more accurately, it was subversive, but that's another post for another blog. There were a few interesting points.

Some of the characters had distinctly Roman names: Cinna, Cato and Caesar leap to mind. All of their names are pronounced English-style. /s/ for Cinna and Caesar. /k/ for Cato. I knew about the Roman names in advance, so I really was hoping for /k/ throughout. Oh well.

But then the really interesting part. After watching the movie, my wife referred to one of the characters, and I thought, "Hm. That's odd." In case you didn't know, my given name is Peter. She said /pitə/. Wait. Nice midwestern girls like my wife do not say /pitə/. Most midwesterners, my wife included, say /pitəɹ/, so I was surprised to hear /pitə/.

Since I've lived in New England, I've been called /pitə/. A lot. My coworkers were particularly fond of displaying their non-rhotic accents in this manner. Suffice to say when I heard the character was named /pitə/ in the movie, I heard Peter. After the movie my wife, without meaning to, set me straight.

Turns out the young man's name is Peeta. Our ears are liars.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Come see me talk

I'll be giving a 15-minute presentation at the NEIU Student Research and Creative Activities Symposium, which I almost spelled symposion. Silly fingers: that's Greek.

When? 13 April 2012
Where? Northeastern Illinois University, 5500 N. St. Louis Ave., Chicago, IL
What? A relatable tale of semantic drift

No, I don't know where on campus or when during the day. I'll fill in the details when I know 'em. I promise to wear a tie and not use too much jargon.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Dual-language kindergarten

Little Girl will be starting school in the fall. The wife and I decided that kindergarten in a local public school would be for the best course of action. We don't know the neighborhood kids, so it would be a good way to make friends. We suspect.

Two interesting language things came up.

1. If you speak a non-English language at home, the state of Illinois mandates an ESL assessment. My wife fibbed, so we will likely avoid it. I'm in favor of not fibbing and making the school take absurd steps. I like absurd.

2. There is a dual-language immersion kindergarten. Spanish-English—as if there were going to be some other option in the part of the provinces. Anyway, the district said it was a "special request." Well, given the level of property taxes I pay (and their rate of increase), I plan on specially requesting. Unless dual-language immersion is special code for separate-but-equal, which I doubt. In any case, there's no good way to know. I can't ask and get a useful answer, because they have to say they're the same. (Not to beat on the taxes issue, but if I'm paying for this they better be equal.) On the other hand, knowing two major world languages to an 8th grade level would be highly advantageous.

I'm really torn and don't know how to get useful information. How does one suss out the difference between a dual-language immersion program that is second rate education and one that is not?

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Baby talk nonsense words

I checked out David Crystal's A Little Book of Language from the library the other day. In one of the early chapters he talks about how babies pick up the cadence of a language first (p. 10). He mentions the iambic stress pattern that English tends to fall into. ti-TUM-ti-TUM-ti-TUM.

Which made me think about the patterns of how I speak around the kids. I would say that I speak Latin with the music of English, which is to say that I follow Latin's stress patterns with English intonation. Questions rise at the end. Statements are usually flat, maybe falling off a bit at the end. And so on. But I hit the stress where it's supposed to go. LUdere VIS. TIbi LIcet. (Usually. Some accents get misplaced accidentally.) Otherwise I sound like a fairly typical American.

Well, maybe not when I get upset with the kids. It can sound pretty Italian, to my ears anyway. Just take my word for it.

Which brings me to the nonsense words I like to say to the kids. I remember saying these to Little Girl before she spoke too much. I'm saying them again to Little Boy. I don't know why I say these, but I do. They aren't quite as constrained in sense as gitchy-gitchy-goo—you can't say that when getting cereal, just when tickling. I can say my nonsense words whenever I like.

After reading that bit by Crystal, I realized that the words I use fit Latin's stress pattern on individual words. ti-TUM-ti or TUM-ti-ti. I really am partial to [haj'baba] and ['wibubu]. I know they sound ridiculous, but they're what I say. I didn't mean to do them that way, but I did.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Whatchoo talkin' 'bout?

That is what we got last night. We were out walking as a family and saw a neighbor and his dog. When one is out walking with a small child, dogs are of great interest. So of course we pointed the dog out. The following conversation broke out.
My wife: Look, a doggie.
Me: Recte, canis.
So far, pretty normal. After all, we are doing our part to revive a multi-lingual America. What happened next was a developmental milestone.

Wife: Doggie.
Me: Canis.
Wife: Doggie.
Me: Canis.
Wife: Doggie.
Me: Canis.
Then, LittleBoy turns around and gives each of us the most puzzled look. A look that we agreed said that he knew we were talking about the same thing with different words. He's not quite fifteen months. So much for linguistic innocence.

Friday, March 16, 2012

John Wells

This guy has a blog about nothing but phonetics. It's wonderful. If you can tolerate to add another blog to your reading list, add this. To help convince you, here is his latest post about phonetics, regional and social variance. Wonderful stuff.

English places

Comments on yesterday’s blog addressed the fraught question of proper names in pronunciation dictionaries. I thought it might be useful if I tried to say what my policy was in LPD, at least as concerns place names in England.

I must confess that I did not set up a set of principles before starting work. Rather, what follows is a post-hoc attempt to express the principles I think I generally followed.

Let’s start from the difficult fact that in England everything is complicated by social class factors. A hundred years ago, certainly fifty years ago, and still to a large extent today, most English people spoke and speak with a local accent. Broadly speaking, the lower your social class, the more your pronunciation diverges from RP; the higher your social class, the closer to RP. Whereas RP speakers can be found in all parts of the country (or could when I were a lad, when not only the local landed gentry but also the vicar and the doctor probably spoke RP or something very close to it), “local” implies non-RP. The local accent typically includes various features that are regarded as non-standard and have traditionally been considered unworthy of mention in normative reference works such as dictionaries. (Note to nonNSs: when I were a lad is a stock phrase with non-standard werefor was, used for comic effect.)

So let’s agree, for the purposes of argument, that most people who live in Hull call it ʊl. But in RP it’s unquestionably hʌl. We can leave it to the sociolinguists to determine the precise details of who uses which of these pronunciations and under what circumstances, and to what extent there are also intermediate forms such as hʊl, həl and perhaps also ʌl.
Continue reading at John Wells's blog…

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

You down with 3PP?

Little Girl: Daddy, what are they doin'?
Me: Fodiunt.
Little Girl (to Little Boy): They're fodiunt our yard.
"They're fodiunt"? Something seems wrong about that. To me anyway. Maybe not to you since you don't speak Latin. I would've been ok with "they fodiunt our yard", but that's not what she said. I find that really puzzling. (Well, probably only because I don't know much about code switching.)

Here's why I thought "they're fodiunt" was badly formed, but "they fodiunt" would be ok.
Yeah, we're down with 3PP—3rd person Plural Present. Yeah, you know me. Sorry. My point is that fodiunt is complete as is. I understand why Little Girl wanted to add a they to fodiunt: you need an explicit subject. They fits the bill. But she didn't stop there. She added 're to they.

Now, I'm aware that we really like our present progressive in English. In fact, it can be difficult to avoid it. I suspect that's what Little Girl was falling victim to. Before you jump and say that she doesn't understand Latin, you can be sure she knows how the present tense works. There may be some light confusion about some contrafactual conditions or tricky participles, but the present tense is well understood.

If I knew some Spanish speakers who readily code switched, I might be able to see how they say it and not be so curious. Which would be better?
They excavan our yard.
They're excavan our yard.
I probably ought to add this, since Spanish also has a present progressive.
They estan excavando our yard.
So, if you're a native Spanish-speaker who code switches with English, which do you prefer? Could you tell me why? 

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Down town

I never give too much thought to pedestrian words. I just use 'em as I need 'em. Well, that's a lie. I do think about these things, but the time spent thinking about versus using is skewed toward using.

One of those words is downtown. I use it frequently as the nearest one is but three blocks away. Ah, the train to the city.

Anyway. I digress like Herodotus, no?

Since we were talking about compounding words last night, I remembered that I knew someone who pronounced it as two separate words. For example:
If you're going down town, pick up some eggs.
The way this person said it, down town didn't sound like one word. It was definitely more like a direction of travel than a destination. If so, what does that indicate about downtown to this person? I can definitely say that this speaker is a rural New Englander one generation older than I am. In a point of contrast, my mother always said downtown as if it were one word and a destination rather than direction. Is this showing that there are different stages of assimilation to a compound?

Maybe I'll look into the origin of downtown as a word. It must predate the song Downtown (1964), but by how much I couldn't say.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Babel No More

I told myself I wasn't going to read Babel No More by Michael Erard. I told myself that I didn't want to find out that people who love learning languages are weird, since I've been known to geek out on that front. I also feared that he would go light on the science and play more to the sensational side of people who know abnormal amounts of languages in search of a good story. Or worse, he'd say that everyone could do this if only they knew the magic formula.

None of which happened. Erard starts with an inspiration from cryptozoology, which he barely mentions, because everyone figures that these extremely multi-lingual people cannot exist. The center of the story is the near-mythical massively multi-lingual Cardinal Mezzofanti. Erard tracks him down—or rather his papers—in Bologna, Italy. And Erard finds a man who put in his time with learning his languages. What seems to be amazing with Mezzofanti is that he was able to switch easily between a very large number of languages with seemingly little effort.

He goes around the globe tracking down modern polyglots. This in itself made me envious, as I do not have the money to do this sort of thing. On the other hand it was a nice vicarious trip around the world. I particularly enjoyed the chapter on his foray to India. People in India are often multilingual, as I know from my college physics professor writing his name in five languages on the first day of class. What was most interesting is that the Indians seemed to treat knowing many languages pretty casually. They would grow up in families where Hindi and Tamil were spoken. Kanada was used in the bazaar. English or Sanskrit at school. Marathi at the office. And so on. People picked up whatever mix was most useful in their life, and many of the people mentioned in that part of the book seemed to know four or five. Whatever the particular mix any person had, it was what fit their life. Native Kanada. Able to work professionally in Hindi and English. Enough Telugu to talk to the neighbors and go shopping.

I suppose living in a fairly monolingual part of the country—though not as much as when I was growing up—I envied the Indians on that count. Of course, now that I'm older I'm into dead languages. I suppose that's how I indulge my whims. No need to be practical on language choice in the provinces.

For the remainder of the book he presents accounts of a few polyglots around the world. He also gets into the science of how the brain handles multiple languages, but I found this part the least satisfying. Maybe I'll have to take the class in psycholinguistics to get some satisfaction.

In any case, if you're interested in people who know lots of languages, this book is for you. If you're looking to find the magic bullet for learning twenty languages in three months, maybe not. If you're looking to find out about model trains, you've got the wrong book.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Breaking into morphology

With porn!

Well, actually this word occurred to me during our intro to morphology. Obviously pornography is now an English word. But so is porn. I may ask the professor about this in class, which does make me wish I had a better example. Anyway.

Here's what I see. Pornography is the free morpheme in English. Clearly, we've got lots of -graphy words, but you can't make any old thing into a -graphy. You can't say *stone-ography. You've got to say lithography—ah here we go, an example I can bring up in class. If you're really familiar with printing, you can say litho. But since I'm on my blog, I'll use porn to help drive traffic.

Anyway. Pornography is the first entry of the word into English. Porn is a newer word shortened from an older word. If it didn't happen within my lifetime, it certainly did within my parents'. So what's the real word formation here?
Or does the new word supercede the old one?
  N       Af
Worse, what happens in the future when people forget that one is older than the other and they misanalyze? Or do we already do that?