Thursday, August 28, 2008

2nd person plural

The second person plural is one of those funny things in English that doesn't exist even though we want it to. Virtually every regional dialect has a 2pl. form (y'all, youns) even though standard English lacks it (except perhaps for the periphrastic "you guys", which is what I use). And that's because, gosh darnit, it's useful. Sure, context can often disambiguate whether one is addressing an individual or a group, but redundancy is a part of language, and in this case it's not even always redundant. More interesting is the emergence of what could be described as a tripartite plural pattern in Southern English: you (2sg.), y'all (2pl., small group), all y'all (larger group). It's not really a singular/dual/plural distinction, because I don't think anyone restricts the use of y'all to only two people, but there are people for whom there is a small plural/larger plural distinction between "y'all" and "all y'all". It just goes to show that if a language doesn't work in the way speakers want it to work, they make it work. After all, communication is the reason behind language, and we want to be able to accurately communicate what we want to.

Monday, August 25, 2008

The difficulty of working with a language one hasn't researched

Some of the best advice I got from one of my professors was to submit abstracts to conferences even if you don't have a paper written on the topic. If it's accepted, you can write the paper, and if not, save all that work for another time. It's essentially the same idea as getting a record deal based on a demo, instead of spending all that time and money recording an entire album that may or may not get picked up.

Of course, there are difficulties to this, the most notable being that it's pretty easy to get in over your head. I was recently working on an abstract about stress in Navajo for submission to the High Desert Linguistics Society conference in November. My basic idea was that stop aspiration in Navajo was dependent on stress, and I was going to figure out how. The problem was that I'd never done any theoretical work on Navajo before (with the exception of an abstract on stop aspiration in Navajo). So each miniscule aspect of the language I had to research. While I've studied Navajo a little from a textbook, I don't speak the language at all, and since it was a language textbook, it didn't use any theoretical or linguistic terminology. Instead of having any background knowledge, whenever I had a question about a certain rule or pattern, I'd have to go research it myself. And since Navajo isn't Indo-European, many times I'd simply have to do the research myself, however cursorily.

I highly recommend submitting abstracts even when the paper isn't written. It's one thing when one is doing an outside research project and writes up finding for that. But for most grad students, we're just trying to get ourselves into research and publishing, and generally don't have mountains of self-produced data to wade through for paper topics. So this about the best we can do, and I don't think that's so bad.

(Bonus trivia: I saw a copy of the book "Black Like Me" with an odd font that was squished together and I believe lacked uppercase; I'm so used to seeing the -eme ending in words like "phoneme", "sememe", etc., that I immediately interpreted the title as "Black Likeme".)

Thursday, August 14, 2008

another reduction in post frequency

Things are starting to pick up as the school year begins, and rather than lapse into an unpredictable and erratic posting schedule (viz., I was working so late yesterday that I forgot to post here), I'm going to go to twice weekly updates on Monday and Thursday. So the next new post will be Monday 8/18.

Thanks to all those who are reading and commenting.

Monday, August 11, 2008


The subjunctive is just one of many historical aspects of English that are falling by the wayside. An example most people will recognize (and probably the only instance where the subjunctive would be commonly used) is saying "if I were" (subjunctive) rather than "if I was" (indicative).

Disclaimer: I prefer to use the subjunctive. I always use it where it is appropriate. It annoys me when people don't use the subjunctive. However, there is nothing "wrong" with using the indicative rather than the subjunctive. Many people did not acquire the use of the subjunctive when they acquired English. It is baseless and ridiculous to call the non-use of the subjunctive "improper English".

The subjunctive generally indicates situations that are counter-factual (contrary to fact, e.g., "I wish I were a millionaire"), conditional ("...whether it be/be it Communism, Capitalism, or some other economic structure..."), or, in certain rote phrases, future or nonaffirmative ("'til death do us part"). It was this last usage that caught me off guard, because I've never consciously analyzed that phrase, so familiar from wedding ceremonies. Upon reflection, I realized it must be the subjunctive (which in this case is signified by the bare form of the verb "do"), even though I can't think of a single productive instance (cf. *until he go to the store).

Bonus trivia: "If he were in the room" is counter-factual, and implies that he is not, while "If he be in the room" is a true conditional, implying that it is uncertain whether or not he is in the room (not that I've ever heard this used).

Saturday, August 2, 2008

next new post 8/11

After spending all day finishing an abstract for the LSA conference in January, I'm taking a bit of a much-needed break. Next new post will be Monday 8/11.