Saturday, June 27, 2009


Betsy Lowe emailed me an interesting observation last week, noting that in the song "The Devil Went Down to Georgia", the lyrics go "He drew his bow across the strings and it made a evil hiss" (not an evil hiss). She commented that she commonly hears this a-before-a-vowel pattern in native Southerners, and thought "that was incredibly unusual because Italian and the other Romance languages I've dabbled in, and now Hungarian, go to great lengths to PREVENT two vowel sounds from running into each other. E.g.: not 'e una altra cosa,' but 'ed un'altra cosa,' in Italian. In Hungarian, 'a' is 'the' or 'that', and if the following word begins with a vowel, then it becomes 'adz.'" This brings up an interesting point about syllable markedness, which is that syllables without onsets are marked, and thus many languages have epenthetic consonants or allomorphs to avoid a sequence of two vowels across a morpheme or word boundary. Besides English, Italian, and Hungarian, there are the Algic languages, which all have personal prefix allomorphs that are CV or CVC, depending on whether the stem begins with a consonant or a vowel. For instance, in Blackfoot the stem for 'dream' is paapáó'kaan, while 'my dream' is nipápao'kaani. The stem for 'boat' is aahkioohsa'tsis, but 'my boat' is nitááhkioohsa'tsisi. The 1st person prefix has allomorphs ni- and nit- to avoid onsetless syllables. Feel free to post examples from languages you're familiar with in the comments.

As a native of Atlanta, GA, I can't say I've noticed the prevalence of "a V-" pronunciations in Southern English, but as a native of Atlanta, GA, I didn't have much contact with natives of the deep South. Please comment if you have supporting or complicating evidence for Betsy's intuition. I'll close with a link to the song on YouTube, where you can hear that it really is əivl̩hɪs, rather than ejivl̩hɪs or əʔivl̩hɪs. The part in question is around 1:20.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

More syntactic constituents

I've talked about syntactic constituents before (here), and recently another difficult regarding them came to my attention via the Famous Dave's web site. On their site you are prompted to "enter either a zip code or select a state". If this were proper VPE (Verb Phrase Ellipsis), I would be expected to (i) enter a zip code or (ii) enter select a state. Since (ii) is ungrammatical, clearly something has gone wrong here. My guess is that this phrasing resulted from a blend of (a) "enter either a zip code or a state" and (b) "either enter a zip code or select a state". Note that with (a) we get (ai) enter a zip code or (aii) enter a state, and with (b) we get (bi) enter a zip code or (bii) select a state. However, as is the request would be parsed as [enter [either [a zip code] or [select a state]]].

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Different to

I've noticed that the narrator of the Discovery show "Mythbusters" uses quite a few idiosyncratic phrases. By idiosyncratic I really just mean different from what I perceive as the standard and common way of saying things; I could be wrong. One of these I noticed the other day was "different to" something. I think in pretty much all cases I would say that one thing is "different from" another, though I might could use "different than" as well. Google gives the following results:

  • different from: 128M

  • different than: 47.5M

  • different to: 10.9M

So apparently I'm not crazy in my ranking of different from >> different than >> different to. From those google searches I also noticed that different to is apparently common in UK English, but rare in US English. I can't think of a good way to check frequencies within a given dialect on google, but I feel like different to may be more Southern. This fits with the Anglophilia of Southern English, as well as the fact that I think the Mythbusters narrator is Southern, based on some non-standard syntax and pronunciations he uses once in a while.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Syntactic constituents

I recently saw a KFC ad that gave me pause: Mix it in your bucket. Why is "mix" highlighted? My guess is that their ad campaign consists of a number of similar slogans, with the initial verb highlighted. Okay, so why did this strike me as odd? Because "it in your bucket" isn't a constituent. A syntactic constituent is, narrowly, a group of words which is entirely and exhaustively dominated by a single node, i.e., there is some syntactic node which dominates all of and only that group of words. More practically the domination doesn't have to be exhaustive: we could certainly say that "mix it" is a constituent, even though the IP node also dominates "in your bucket". But "it in your bucket"? Not even close. The most general parsing of the sentences would be [mix it][in your bucket], and most narrowly would be [[mix [it]][in [your [bucket]]]]. There's no way to derive a constituent "it in your bucket".