Monday, 15 November 2010

Leave-taking online

Another Twitter-inspired post.  Someone just wrote:

Is it unreasonable to expect that chats should end with a farewell or sudden-unexpected-internet-fail? We say hi but never bye.
Makes me think of how difficult I find it to end a chat conversation--much worse than phone. How we 'take our leave' in conversation has been written about, but do the patterns remarked upon in that literature spill over into online conversations? How does politeness work in chat, especially with regard to ending or beginning conversations?

Thursday, 28 October 2010

two ideas for studying slang

A lot of students are interested in studying the slang that they and their friends use. Here are some ideas for new things to do with slang...

  1. A synonym study--slang words almost always duplicate a meaning that already has a word. E.g. if you say wicked to mean 'excellent', you could've used excellent, right?  But it's also the case that within the slang vocab, there can be a lot of redundancy--lots of words for approval, maybe for intensity, for size, attractiveness, and possibly for things or activities that are important to the group (e.g. sex). Why does a slang need a lot of words for the same thing--and are they really the same?  If it's a big enough slang, this might be investigated by looking at the contexts in which the words occur.  E.g. words of approval (I'm dating myself and not being very imaginative here, but, for example: cool, wicked, amazing, brilliant).  Theoretically, any of them could describe anything--but do they?  Do any of them tend to go with people more (a cool boy? a wicked boy?) or with films, or... ?  If it's a smaller slang, it could still be studied by collecting usages, maybe interviewing informants...
  2. Sound slang neologisms follow any known trends or reveal any unknown ones for what kinds of sounds tend to go with particular meanings?  You might've seen the bouba/kiki effect experiment on the web, which shows that people have real preferences for certain sounds going with certain meanings.  Does this work across neologisms in slangs? You don't need to stick to one slang in this case--you might want to look for as many neologisms in as many communities/languages as you can, in order to determine whether there's evidence that neologising is led by 'phonosemantic' tendencies.

morphological double negatives

Here's a question: under what conditions can one have a double-double negative prefix.  Here's (approximately) the example I read today:
I don't want a non-stick wok, I want a non-non-stick one.
Or what about this one?
There are only a variety of non nonprofit debt-consolidation companies
I'm wondering: what are the semantic and/or pragmatic factors that have to be present to get those double negatives? (I have my ideas...what are yours?)

This could be studied simply by collecting examples--from corpora, from the web, from real life.  For searching the web, I think one needs to start from a list of non-words (e.g. from a dictionary; and un-words, etc.) and then search with various negative prefixes in front--in double quotation marks on Google). There's a decent amount of literature on negative prefixes (that'd be where to start), but I don't know of any on stacking them like this. It's a rare phenomenon, but that just means that you might get to work from a nice small data set!

You'd probably need to look at which words take an extra negative and which ones don't, and have access to a larger context to try to figure out why the double negatives are used instead of a positive, where one would have been possible.

A related phenomenon is combining 'not' and a negative prefixed word--e.g. I'm not unhappy. That's been discussed more often (as it occurs more often).  Why?

Thursday, 21 October 2010

rappers' names, band names

Christian sent me this great graphic today--a taxonomy of rappers' names:

It reminded me of a paper I read when I was a student about rock band names...but I can't find it now.  But anyhow--what a fun project.  How do trends in band naming (or persona naming in the case of individual artists who don't use their given names) change?  What does the name say about the music? Do band names follow trends in other kinds of naming, e.g. commercial products?  

multilingual twitter

This came through my Twitter feed today--good idea!

T'would be cool to study which lang. multilingual users choose to tweet w/, if all content is considered similar.
Indeed, I see a lot of Twitter folk who declare that they tweet in multiple languages--which languages do they use for which tweets?  Why?

Friday, 8 October 2010

business language - business letters

Someone said to me on Twitter today:

I bet BrE (dunno abt AmE) business language has changed drastically in the last 50 yrs or less. All that "your esteemed favour of the 11th ultimo" stuff was around within living memory.
Ok, maybe not your living memory.  But it struck me that this could be an area for a project.  How has the way in which companies correspond with customers changed, for instance?  Or within companies, how did they communicate?  Do changes come with the shift from paper memos to email?  Did they come with the social liberalisation of the 60s/70s? What is formality now versus formality then?  One could even just look at a particular part of communication--how do people introduce a topic, greet, sign off?

I've not offered a particular question or a methodology here (nor have I pre-researched it), but if one had access to, say a family business with long records, or looked into what public archives might be available, there could be some interesting areas to explore...

Monday, 13 September 2010

Twitter hashtags

Hashtags are used on Twitter to mark a topic, so that people can follow a group of tweets on the same topic by various people.  So, for instance, this one is to make the tweet stand out to people who are searching for tweets about language:

[video & article] Children developed own #language in cave 

But people are using them for other things, where it's clear that it's not to identify a topic or theme.  Here are a few examples: 

You know when you've worked really hard revising a story, then suddenly realize you were revising an old version? #pullhairoutofhead #cry
 Me: "I'm not accepting new work now." Would-be client (self-pub author): "Well, can you just review what I've done myself?" #no
 ugh, the intros are the hardest part. Spent three hours on 3pp writing. Still not sure if it's too-detailed or not-enough. #onward
 SO many ways to get hold of a book these days. I mean there's really no excuse #shamelesswhoring

So, why and how do people use hashtags?  What does it serve to put it after a # rather than just saying it? 

Down and Up in the UK

A former English Language student (now a Doctor of Psycholinguistics--yippee!) and I were talking about doing a study of how people use and understand 'down' and 'up' in directions in British English.  There are some issues with London, Oxford, and Cambridge having 'up' status for various people in various contexts, but there's also the question of whether 'down' is perceived as 'south' or if it's 'toward the coast' or if it shifts depending on whether you're on a hill or not. 

There's been a lot interest in prepositions in Cognitive Linguistics, but I don't think this aspect of down/up has been examined.  Part of the question is: do English speakers understand down/up to be 'cardinal directions' (i.e. like north/south).  Something has been made of the fact that English speakers give directions with left/right, rather than north/south/east/west.  Does use of down indicate that we are more aware of the cardinal directions than might be thought from the relative lack of cardinal direction terms in our language use?

Friday, 20 August 2010

hunting quail, duck(s), *bird, etc.

On the American Dialect Society email list, a discussion about the plural of 'moose' has pointed out how irregular English fauna plurals can be. 

You'll know that 'fish' takes an -es plural in certain circumstances.  So there are many fish in the sea refers to there being a lot of fish-individuals, but there are many fishes in the sea would probably be used to mean that there are a lot of different kinds of fish (tuna, mackerel, etc.).  But it seems weird to do this with moose:
there are a lot of moose in Canada
?? There are two mooses: the European and North American species
Then someone pointed out the different way we do plurals for game animals:
They're hunting quail
? They're hunting duck
* They're hunting bird
If you keep trying that sentence with different animal terms at different levels of generality (mallard-duck-bird, etc.), it gets even more confusing. In the 'hunting' example, the issue is whether or not the animal is treated as a mass noun (as we do when we talk about meat--you might eat a lot of chicken, but probably wouldn't say you eat a lot of chickens). 

At any rate, something interesting is going on with respect to when we add -s to animal names. A corpus study of this would be an excellent way to investigate it--possibly also with native speaker judgement tests.  If you're interested in exploring these things, I'd recommend reading up a bit on mass and count noun morphology/semantics.  Chapter 8 of my in-press textbook (people who took Semantics should have it--or ask me for it) covers the basics of countability, and Anna Wierzbicka's chapter on 'Oats and Wheat' in her book The Semantics of Grammar (1988) helps one to think about all the different categories of countability there are.  (There's more recent work in this vein, but check out that one first to see if the subject interests you.) 

There's also a lot to think about in terms of different dialects and countability (not necessarily about animals)--are there patterns to the differences? See this blog post for some examples.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

A Latin revival?

I have a sense that there is an increased tolerance amongst our students for the idea that knowledge of Latin is at least useful, and at best beneficial. Few of them study Latin today, but when asked to consider its advantages, most see a purpose. Very few know how to write Roman numerals, preferring 'Henry the 8th' to 'Henry VIII', and are mystified by page or paragraph numbering in lower case Roman numerals. Few of them have any knowledge of the functions of Latin today, being largely unaware of the Linnean system, and never reading inscriptions, memorials or mottos. Despite the common currency of terms like quid pro quo, the only Latin phrase they seem to know is vice versa. They think status quo is an 80s band (it was) and etc., e.g. and i.e. are English short forms.

My linguistic wonderings today are: having long been dead (non-productive), is Latin now about to be cremated, or is it attempting to stage a come-back?

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

The death of English inflection

We all know that English inflection has been decreasing for a very long time. I suggest that it is arguably in its death throes. In particular, I believe that the confusion surrounding number concord is either caused by or causing a change in perception (for British English speakers, at least), such that number concord just doesn't seem that important any more. I would argue that there are so few situations where number concord actually performs any function (in terms of disambiguation or conveying meaning) that the grammatical rule is no longer important enough for most speakers to bother.

Jets Fans and Raider Rooters

That phrase was in the title of a paper from years ago that discussed the relative ordering of inflectional and derivational processes. I have been noticing increasing use of expressions like "mobile phones free zone" where I would expect "mobile phone free zone". I have two theories as to why this might happen more: 1. "we" (English speakers, Natural Language speakers?) are less attached to the apparent constraint that we inflect after we derive or 2. "we" (English speakers) are less convinced that the inflectional processes in English are really inflectional at all.

The first theory sounds a bit dodgy to me, and would need a lot of cross-lingual research to determine. The second fits in quite nicely with another idea I have - see my next post!