Saturday, November 17, 2007


After reading a Language Log post today on Low Attachment, I fortuitously heard this warning on a Celebrex commercial:

"People taking other NSAID's or the elderly should consult their doctor."

What, may I ask, are the elderly prescribed for? The correct parsing is, of course, [[people taking other NSAID's] or [the elderly]], but our syntax really wants to interpret this as people taking [[other NSAID's] or [the elderly]], however much our knowledge of semantics forbids this interpretation. I now know, thanks to Arnold Zwicky, that this is because of our attachment (if you will) to Low Attachment. That is, we want to attach that second constituent to the closest phrase-level category. In this example, that means interpreting "the elderly" as a second object of the verb "taking," as opposed to interpreting it as a second subject of the VP "should consult."

Monday, November 12, 2007

epenthetic consonants

An epenthetic sound is one that has no (historical) phonemic basis, and usually no orthographic basis, but is pronounced anyway. Usually it is something we pronounce without meaning to, as a way of easing from one sound to another more fluidly, for instance, saying "for instants." Check your pronunciation; this is certainly how I pronounce it, but the other day I actually say it written that way. The t-insertion is a natural result of trying to go from the voiced alveolar nasal stop /n/ to the voiceless alveolar fricative /s/. The /t/ is somewhere in between -- it retains the stop manner of articulation from the /n/, but acquires the voiceless and oral features of the /s/.

"Pumpkin" is another example of epenthesis. The "p" does not exist historically. Underlying the word is "pumkin," but the "p" jumps in there, just as the t did, keeping the stop articulation of the m and the voiceless, oral qualities of the k. There's something about those (nasal stop)(voiceless non-nasal sound) clusters that's just hard to pronounce. When I see someone write out "for instants," I immediately make a value judgment about the person's intellect, but I don't do the same with "pumpkin" because "pumkin" isn't a word at all. Maybe in a few hundred years "for instance" will have completely transitioned to "for instants."

The epenthetic /p/ in pumpkin also explains the alternative pronunciation "punkin." If the underlying form is "pumkin," the speaker has two options, since the (nasal)(oral) transition is so difficult: one is to insert the epenthetic /p/, the other is to assimilate the nasal consonant to the position of the following stop, hence "punkin," where the n represents a velar nasal. I find it interesting that we have no qualms about pronouncing /n/ as alveolar or velar, yet /m/ we want to pronounce bilabial to the extent that we'll insert epenthetic consonants in "pumpkin" and "hamster."

Thursday, November 8, 2007

in the light of

As someone who has used the phrase "in light of" his whole life, I was a little surprised to come across the variant "in the light of" the other day. I think it was in one of my students' papers, so I didn't really give it much thought, just corrected it and moved on. However, I found another instance of it today in Geoffrey Poole's Syntactic Theory. He, too, uses "in the light of," and I reasonably sure he's a native speaker (I would imagine writing a book on syntax in English would be rather difficult otherwise). So obviously it's not just a mistake; people say this.

What I'm puzzling over is whether they're way is "correct" or not. Obviously we don't talk much about what is "correct" in descriptive linguistics, so by correct I mean the original historical phrase. Where is this phantom article coming from? For me this is an idiomatic phrase. While I can understand what it means by looking at its constituents, really I don't break it down linguistically when I use it. I'm not thinking of knowledge shedding light on some topic, I'm just thinking "in light of" = "given this evidence." It could be that for some people who do a little less reanalysis, the article makes more sense, whether it was there to begin with or not. Wiktionary lists "in light of" but not "in the light of," though I can't really say that proves anything. Still, we could theoretically take that as showing the statistical preponderance of the version without the article: the fact that someone took the time to make a page for that version and not the arthrous one means its likely that more people use that anarthrous version.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

possession in Blackfoot

I just finished a handout for a presentation I'm giving tomorrow on possession in Blackfoot, so I thought I would share some of the main points here. Blackfoot has an interesting way of marking verbs and nouns, part of which is the fact that they are marked essentially the same. The prefix nit- can indicate 1st person on a verb, or can indicate what in English would be indicated by the possessive pronoun "my." Another interesting quality of the language is that prefixes mark the person (1st, 2nd, or 3rd), while a suffix indicates the plural (with a separate suffix for each person. The 1st person prefix can range from n- to ni- to nit- to nits-, though I won't get into the variation here (and even if I did I wouldn't have the knowledge to explain all of it). 2nd person is the same, but with an initial k- instead of n-. Third person is generally marked by o-.

Then we have the plural suffixes: -(i)nan(a) for 1st exclusive, -(i)nun(a) for 1st inclusive, -oau(a) for 2nd, and -oauai (also -auai, oai, oaiau) for 3rd. The initial vowel in parentheses signifies that it is only realized after a consonant. The final vowel is parentheses signifies nothing consistent, merely that speakers often drop it. While a noun or verb can have only a prefix, it cannot have only one of these plural suffixes. Another concept that might not be immediately apparent to IE-speakers is the 1st person inclusive/exclusive distinction. Many (unrelated) Native American languages have a distinction semantically and morphologically for the difference between "we including you" and "we excluding you." "We" always conveys the speaker and various unspecified third persons, but in Native American languages there is a morphological distinction to indicate whether or not it also includes the addressee.

I won't get into too much more detail, but I will give some examples:
niksistanan - our (excl.) mother [ni-ksist-anan] = []
kiksistanun - our (incl.) mother [ki-ksist-anun] = []
kiksistoau - your (pl.) mother [ki-ksist-oau] = []
oksistoauai - their mother [o-ksist-oauai] = []