Saturday, November 19, 2011


Since I began working in theoretical linguistics several years ago, I've been struck by a specific usage of the word "crucially". In common parlance, we typically use "crucial" to mean "absolutely necessary" or "the best course of action". We might say "It's crucial that we arrive before midnight", perhaps because the road closes at that time. But I'd say the adverbial form is less common. COCA returns 15344 hits for "crucial" and 417 for "crucially", for a ratio of 37:1 in favor of the adjective. On the other hand, "quick" returns 33060 hits, and "quickly" returns 61284, showing the adverbial form is significantly more common, with a ratio of 2:1 in favor of the adverb. In scientific parlance, on the other hand, "crucially" is typically used to indicate a piece of data that shows beyond a reasonable doubt that the argument goes through. As an abstract example, let's say we want to show that the numeral "one" is more common than the numeral "two" -- in all languages. We compare a number of languages, and all but language X show "one" with a higher frequency than "two". This goes against our argument, unless we can show a specific reason why we would expect "two" to be more frequent in language X in a way that does not predict this in the other languages. We might say "Crucially, the numeral 'two' in language X forms a part of the common idiom 'blah blah blah'". This crucial piece of data shows that language X does not form a counterexample.

I was interested in seeing if this use of crucially (or rather, the overwhelming commonality of using "crucially" when relating an argument) was specific to theoretical linguistics, or if other fields also present arguments this way. To examine this, I did a text search for "crucially" in the New England Journal of Medicine (non-social science), Natural Language & Linguistic Theory (theoretical linguistics), International Journal of American Linguistics (less theoretical linguistics), Political Behavior (non-linguistic social science), and Philosophical Issues (non-science). NEJM returned 19 articles in the past 10 years, for a rate of around 2/yr. NLLT returned 198 in the past 28 years, for a rate of around 7/yr. IJAL returned 23 for the past 18 years, for a rate of around 1/yr. PB returned 10 for 1979-2007, a rate of less than 1 every 2 years. PI returned 212 for 1991-1998, a rate of over 30/yr. My inability to verify how all of these journals and web sites conduct text searches makes it impossible to draw any conclusions from these numbers, but it does seem that compared to at least some other fields, theoretical linguistics uses the word "crucially" more often. (I'm for the most part leaving aside the issue of whether every article uses "crucially" in the sense I'm talking about; however, I did hand-check a number of the articles, which did indeed use it in the argumental sense I described above. Additionally, "crucially" is fairly rare in standard language, as evidenced by the COCA search.) The PI numbers I believe are ridiculously inflated; it looks like the results I got were for any issue of the journal that contained the word "crucially", rather than searching within the individual articles.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

English is hard

I ran across an interesting spelling pronunciation the other day (I have the sense that it was on Not Always Right, but I've been unable to find it). A woman ordering quiche asked for kwɪki rather than kiʃ. These types of spelling pronunciations are not uncommon for low-frequency words, where low-frequency varies according to dialect and context. Of course, English pronunciation rules don't get you from kiʃ to kwɪki. Since English has borrowed heavily from a number of languages (viz., French, Latin, and Greek), we have to figure out the source of a word before we can come up with a reasonable pronunciation. In the case of "quiche", we have to realize that the word originates in French, in which case we will probably know that "qui" is [ki] and that "ch" in French loans is typically a postalveolar fricative. It seems, however, that this woman thought the word was Greek, where word-final "che" is not uncommon in terms borrowed from Greek (e.g., synecdoche), and is pronounced [ki]. "Qui" as [kwɪ] is typically for English, though unusual for foreign loans. These types of errors are consequences of borrowing from so many different sources, and even more so of having a non-phonetic orthography.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Rocket Languages

Over the summer I was asked if I would review Rocket Languages, a language learning company that sells online and physical media for language learning. I'm not typically the language course type (I prefer to buy grammars and dictionaries and dig through them with no hope of ever speaking the language conversationally), but I had a lot of fun poking around the online course I was given access to (the Premium online version of the Beginning German course). I found the site set up easy to navigate, with a simple table-of-contents style interface to choose lessons from. I've checked out sites in the past that make it virtually impossible to do one thing at a time and then come back to the content later, so this was a plus for me. As always, I wanted more overt grammatical content (one of the reasons I've never tried Rosetta Stone), but overall there was a decent balance between learning conversational phrases and looking at things like verb conjugations (biased towards the former, as with most popular language courses). There's also a handy "My Vocabulary" section where you can save words you find interesting or difficult to memorize for later reference. The feature I was able to use the least (because of my own busy schedule) is probably also the most exciting: the site has a community section where people can post about their language learning experiences. I think this is a great feature of Rocket Languages, and one I haven't yet encountered elsewhere (though surely it has been done before). The only way to learn a language is to use it, so the forum feature is in my opinion a necessary component to online course, even though many lack it.

In summary: if what you're looking for is an online language course, I can recommend Rocket Languages more than most. Note that for those who are looking for CDs, these are included at the higher levels. As with any online course, you're not going to be a fluent speaker just because you completed the course, but the forum feature goes some way toward encouraging learning to actually use the language rather than just reading about it. While this is no replacement for oral conversation, it's definitely a step up from just reading and listening on your own. For those who are turned off by the high price tag ($299.95 for physical media, $149.95 for online), they have a promotion through November 7 where you can gain access to the online version for $99.95.