Saturday, January 31, 2009

If you...then it

President Obama said in an interview with CNN (I think at the time this was President-elect Obama), "If you think about the journey that this country has made, then it can't help but stir your heart." However much I may agree with his sentiment, I can't help but be put off by the phrasing.

I think the problem for me is the use of "then". With if-then sentences, I seem to want the subjects to be coreferential. Without "then" they don't need to be at all. "If you can't help..." sounds fine to me. But "If you...then it" strikes me as off somehow. As far as I know there's no prescriptivist rule regarding anything like this. In fact, I'm sure prescriptivists would always want us to include the "then", citing some nonsense about ambiguity or form. It's not "then" I have a problem with either, because "If you eat now, then you won't be hungry later" is fine, because the subjects are coreferential. But for some reason my language faculty doesn't like non-coreferential if-then sentences with an explicity subordinator. It's a mystery.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

A new area of responsibility

I was struck by a CNN headline a few days ago that mentioned Obama's presidency and "a new area of responsibility". Obviously they meant "era", but "area" was in both the headline and the text of the article. It was corrected within a few hours, but left me wondering if the writer actually thought or meant "area" of if it was a typo.

I seriously doubt the writer meant "area". A "new era of responsibility" is certainly a phrase that's been going around recently, so "area" must be a typo. I tried a bunch of different misspellings in Word, but didn't get any that list "area" as a suggestion. One thing I typed, that I was unable to recreate, resulted in the sequence "a rea" or something similar being automatically changed to "area", so that's one possibility, but it rests on leaving the "n" off of "an", misspelling "era", and furthmore leaving out "new" and just talking about "an era of responsibility". That seems like too many steps to me.

Another possibility is that it was a phonological mishap because of the pronunciation similarities between "era" and "area". This happens to me all the time. My fingers often type what I hear in my head as opposed to what I'm actually thinking, so that while I would never mess up there/their/they're in a paper, I often do so in quick IM typing. I once answered "know" to a polar question.

Monday, January 19, 2009

This blog believed read, I say

If you're anything like me, you may have had a bit of trouble interpreting the title of this post to reflect my belief that people read this blog. I modelled this odd phrasing after a headline that caught my eye the other day, about the pilot of a plane who bailed out in Florida after falsely stating that his plane was crashing: "Mystery pilot believed found, authorities say". I think the problem here is some kind of collapsed double passive construction.

The original statement is something like "It is believed that the mystery pilot is found", in turn reflecting some statement on the part of authorities like "We believe we have found the mystery pilot." The first sentence, with two passives (one in the main clause and one in a subordinate clause), isn't that difficult to comprehend. But when you don't have any expletive subjects, articles, or auxiliaries, it's a bit difficult to parse.

I think another part of the difficulty is that we are loath to interpret "found" as an adjective. For me "mystery pilot believed dead" isn't nearly as bad a sentence as "mystery pilot believed found". It's those two passives crammed together without any auxiliaries that does it in for me.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Thank you for selecting

Here in Missoula the movie theater choices are fairly limited: two Carmike theaters, and the Wilma theater, in the old Wilma hotel in downtown Missoula. I've always been struck by a line on the Carmike cinemas intro screen: "Thank you for selecting Carmike Cinemas". Let me tell you why I find this a little annoying.

To me selection has to do with being presented equivalent options and choosing one of them based on certain criteria. A dictator is not selected, and if I'm starving in the woods and can't find any food, I'm not selecting berries if I stumble across a blackberry patch. Likewise, the movie choices in Missoula, though there are multiple venues, don't really allow for selection. The Wilma only shows indie films, and the Carmikes only show mainstream releases. Furthermore, the two Carmike theaters usually show different movies so that they aren't competing for the limited business in town. So if there's a given movie you want to see, chances are good that there is only one place to see it. I don't consider that selection.

Obviously not all markets are as small as Missoula. However, many markets are smaller than Missoula, and Carmike, as far as I know, only builds theaters in rural areas or suburbs of smaller cities. It seems that their business model is built on the premise of limited competition in out-of-the-way places. So I wonder if people ever "select" Carmike Cinemas. "Thank you for choosing" would be much more felicitous for me, and I'm not sure why. In terms of denotation, "choose" and "select" are essentially the same: you are presented with options and you pick one of them. Yet for some reason "Thank you for choosing to eat berries" wouldn't be as infelicitous in my above described survival scenario. Perhaps it has to do with "Thank you for choosing..." as a more set phrase in our society, whereas "Thank you for selecting" is essentially purely compositional for me, e.g., "...choosing..." for me is like "blue ribbon" (a coherent concept in our society), whereas "...selecting..." for me is like "green ribbon"; it doesn't really mean anything other than the sum of its parts.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

If I were X and Y

Today's topic comes from an episode of Friends. One of the (male) characters is discussing a hypothetical situation and says "If I were a man..." and then trails off, the audience laughs, and he continues, "Did I just say 'If I were a man'?"

The intended sentence, of course, would have been, "If I were a man and X", where X is some hypothetical situation. This is an example of a counterfactual, where the protasis (the if clause) contains a hypothetical situation which is counter to fact. The sitcom character takes the counterfactual in his dialogue to be "If I were a man", i.e., "If X" where X = "I am a man". In fact, the counter to fact clause is "If I were a man and X", where X is the hypothetical situation in question. Since this is a counterfactual, we know that the protasis must be false, but the protasis is not "If X", but rather "If X and Y". While the opposite of X is ~X (where ~ is the negative quantifier), the opposite of (X and Y) is ~X or ~Y, not necessarily ~X and ~Y. Thus in the dialogue, the speaker can of course still be a man and say "If I were a man and Y". All this means is that one of the conditions be false, in this case presumably Y.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

The mismatch between haplogroup and language

Language is an important part of culture, identity, and everyday life, so it makes sense that we want to collapse language and culture/ethnicity. However, it is almost never the case that linguistic and genetic boundaries line up exactly, certainly not in modern times, and relatively rarely even in ancient times (as far as can be determined). Don Ringe recently did a fascinating guest post on Language Log on the linguistic diversity of aboriginal Europe. He notes specifically the quick spread of Indo-European languages, with the result that "while most Europeans’ linguistic ancestors were speakers of PIE, many or even most of their biological ancestors at the same time depth were speakers of non-IE languages already residing in Europe."

Nowhere is this more evident than the modern United States. With the exception of the 1% or so who speak an indigenous American language, virtually all of the 300 million American citizens speak English (even if it is only as a second language). Even immigrants who learn English poorly or not at all tend to have children who are at least bilingual, if not monolingual in English. This same kind of dominant language spread most likely occurred in ancient Europe, and indeed all over the world. Yet often anthropologists and occasionally linguists like to attempt to tie genetic groups to certain languages.

One famous example of this is Greenberg's three language groups in the Americas. While most linguists who study indigenous American languages allow around 70-80 language families (at the low end; many people insist on many more), Greenberg claimed on the basis of his language comparisons that there are no more than three "stocks" in the Americas: Eskimo, Na-Dene, and Amerind. While the first two are recognized families, "Amerind" lumps together the rest of the 80 or so language families spoken from Canada to Chile. Most linguists, especially historical linguists, object to Greenberg's style of classification because it relies on shallow, wide surveys of languages rather than narrow, in-depth analysis. Much of Greenberg's evidence for relatedness comes solely from the frequency of /n/ in first-person markers. Much more of his data lists cognates between words which have different numbers of morphemes, or are clearly borrowings.

Greenberg's theory is often "supported" by those who point to the three genetic groups in the Americas, which rougly correspond to Greenberg's three linguistic families. The error here is in thinking that because two peoples belong to the same genetic group, they speak the same language (or even related languages). Now, it may be the case that Chapakuran languages are related to Algic languages, but if they are, the relation is so distant that we will never find evidence of a link unless we develop time travel. Glottochronology (which relies on assumptions and rates of change rejected by all but the most die-hard language lumpers) predicts that after 15,000 years, two related languages will share about 6-7% of their vocabulary -- approximately the same as chance resemblance. Mark Rosenfelder discusses this at length in his article How likely are chance resemblances between languages?.

So that's not to say that it's incorrect to equate haplogroups and linguistic stocks, just that it's not falsifiable. It may well be that there was a single Proto-World language from which all languages are descended. However, because of the great time depth at issue, this is a matter for faith, not for science.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

I wish I would have...

One of the common "errors" that I've been noticing recently is the use of "I wish I would have" (and similar constructions) for "I wish I had" (and similar constructions). Of course in reality there's nothing wrong with this construction; it's simply not the proscriptive one. My guess is that it's not even the less common construction.

A quick check on google gives the following results:

  • "I wish I would have" - 5,080,000
  • "I wish I had" - 19,900,000

Okay, so the nonstandard construction is indeed less common, but only by about 4:1. And five million hits is enough to question why people use this construction. Saying "that's how they learned it" isn't explanatory, because this just shifts the question back a generation, to why their parents said it that way, ad infinitum. My bet would be on the desire for a different construction marking the protasis of a conditional clause (the protasis is "if" clause of a conditional construction; the apodosis is the "then" clause). While language does tend to eschew redundancy, there are so many cases of redundancy in language(s) that this is clearly a constraint which is readily violated. The phrasing "I wish I had gone to the store" is perhaps a bit puzzling if we take out the conditionality. Why "I had gone to the store"? Why not "I have gone to the store"? After all, it's a wish about the present situation. This may be why some people prefer "I wish I would have gone to the store", because it's transparent. "I would have gone to the store" makes more sense out of the subordinate context, and simultaneously shows the conditional/irrealis nature of the wish in a way "I wish I had gone to the store" does not.