New series: 50 Great Ideas in Linguistics

As I’ve been teaching this summer (And failing to blog on a semi-regular basis like a loser. Mea culpa.) I’ll occasionally find that my students aren’t familiar with something I’d assumed they’d covered at some point already. I’ve also found that there are relatively few resources for looking up linguistic ideas that don’t require a good deal of specialized knowledge going in. SIL’s glossary of linguistic terms is good but pretty jargon-y, and the various handbooks tend not to have on-line versions. And even with a concerted effort by linguists to make Wikipedia a good resource, I’m still not 100% comfortable with recommending that my students use it.

Therefore! I’ve decided to make my own list of Things That Linguistic-Type People Should Know and then slowly work on expounding on them. I have something to point my students to and it’s a nice bite-sized way to talk about things; perfect for a blog.

Here, in no particular order, are 50ish Great Ideas of Linguistics sorted by sub-discipline. (You may notice a slightly sub-disciplinary bias.) I might change my mind on some of these–and feel free to jump in with suggestions–but it’s a start. Look out for more posts on them.

  • Sociolinguistics
    • Sociolinguistic variables
    • Social class and language
    • Social networks
    • Accommodation
    • Style
    • Language change
    • Linguistic security
    • Linguistic awareness
    • Covert and overt prestige
  • Phonetics
    • Places of articulation
    • Manners of articulation
    • Voicing
    • Vowels and consonants
    • Categorical perception
    • “Ease”
    • Modality
  • Phonology
    • Rules
    • Assimilation and dissimilation
    • Splits and mergers
    • Phonological change
  • Morphology
  • Syntax
  • Semantics
    • Pragmatics
    • Truth values
    • Scope
    • Lexical semantics
    • Compositional semantics
  • Computational linguistics
    • Classifiers
    • Natural Language Processing
    • Speech recognition
    • Speech synthesis
    • Automata
  • Documentation/Revitalization
    • Language death
    • Self-determination
  • Psycholinguistics

Of cups, mugs, glasses and semantic drift

One of the more interesting little sub-fields in linguistics is diachronic semantics. That’s the study of how word meanings change over time. Some of these changes are relatively easy to track. A “mouse” to a farmer in 1900 was a small rodent with unfortunate grain-pilfering proclivities. To a farmer today, it’s also one of the tools she uses to interact with her computer. The word has gained a new semantic sense without losing it’s original meaning. Sometimes, however,  you have a weird little dance where a couple of words are negotiating over the same semantic space–that’s another way of saying a related group of concepts that a language groups together–and that’s where things get interesting. “Cup”, “mug” and “glass” are engaged in that little dance-off right now (at least in American English). Let’s see how they’re doing, shall we?

Glasses 800 edit
Cup? Glass? Jug? Mug? Why don’t we just call them all “drinking vessels” and be done with it?
Cup: Ok, quick question for you: does a cup have to have a handle? The Oxford dictionaries say “yes“, but I really think that’s out of date at this point. Dr. Reed pointed out that this was part of her criteria for whether something could be called a “cup” or not, but that a lot of younger speakers no longer make that distinction. In fact, recently I noticed that someone of my acquaintance uses “cup” to refer only to disposable cups. Cup also has the distinct advantage of being part of a lot of phrases: World cup, Stanley cup, cup of coffee, teacup, cuppa, cup of sugar, in your cups, and others that I can’t think of right now.

So “cup” is doing really well, and gaining semantic ground.

Glass: Glass, on the other hand, isn’t doing as well. I haven’t yet talked to someone who can use “glass” to refer to drinking vessels that aren’t actually made of glass including, perhaps a little oddly, clear disposable cups. On the other hand, there are some types of drinking vessels that I can only refer to as glasses. Mainly those for specific types of alcohol: wine glass, shot glass, martini glass, highball glass (though I’ve heard people referring to the glass itself just as a highball, so this might be on the way out). There are alcohol-specific pieces of glassware that don’t count as glasses though–e.g. champagne flute, brandy snifter–so it’s not a categorical distinction by any means.

“Glass” seems to be pretty stable, but if “cup” continues to become broader and broader it might find itself on the outs.

Mug: I don’t have as much observational data on this one, but there seems to be another shift going on here. “Mug” originally referred only to drinking vessels that were larger than cups (see below), and still had handles.

Note that the smaller ones on top are “cups” and the larger ones on the bottom are labelled as “mugs”.
Most people call those insulated drinking vessels with the attached lids “travel mugs” rather than “travel cups” (640,000 Google hits vs. 22,400) but I find myself calling them “cups” instead. I think it’s because 1) I pattern it with disposable coffee cups and 2) I find handledness is a necessary quality for mugs. I can call all of the drinking vessels in the picture above “mugs” and prefer “mug” to “cup”.

So, at least for me, “mug” is beginning to take over the semantic space allotted to “cup” by older speakers.

Of course, this is a very cursory, impressionistic snapshot of the current state of the semantic space. Without more robust data I’m hesitant to make concrete predictions about the ways in which these terms are negotiating their semantic space, but there’s definitely some sort of drift going on.

Limitations on use of “[quality] as shit”

[Trigger warning: I’m going to write “shit” about a billion more times in this blog post because it is necessary to describe this linguistic observation. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.]

So every once in a while I notice something semantic about English that just blows my mind. I was making tea this  morning and thinking about whether or not your could say that “That dress is bespoke as shit”. Why? Because I’m a linguist, but also because someone brought this cartoon to my attention again recently:

So, in the field of semantics sitting around thinking about your intuitions about words is actually pretty solid methodology, so I’m going to do that. (I know, right? Not a single ultrasound or tracheal puncture? What do they do on Saturday nights?) Let’s compare the following sentences:

  1. That dress is bespoke as shit.
  2. His wardrobe is bespoke as shit.
  3. That dress is pink as shit.
  4. His wardrobe is pink as shit.

My intuition is that that two and three are fine, four is… okay but a little weird and that one is downright wrong. And I also feel very strongly that the goodness of a given sentence where some quality of an object is modified by “as shit” is closely tied to whether or not that quality is a continuous scale. (And, no, I’m not going to say “adjective” here. Mainly because you can also say “Her wardrobe is completely made out of sharks as shit.” And, in my universe, at least, “completely made out of sharks” doesn’t really count as an adjective.) Things that are on a continuous scale are like darkness. It can be a little dark or really dark or completely dark; there’s not really any point where you switch from being dark to light, right? And something that’s dark for me, like a starry night, might be light for a bat. “Pink”, and all colors, are continuous scales. (FUN FACT: how many color terms various languages have and why is a really big debate.) But things like “free” (as in costing zero dollars) are more discrete. Something’s either free or it’s not and there’s not really any middle ground.

The other thing you need to take into account is whether or not the thing being described is plural and whether it’s a mass or count noun. Mass nouns are things like “water”, “sand” or “bubblegum”. You can less or more or some of these things, but you can’t count them. “I’ll have three water” just sounds really odd. Count nouns are things like “buckets of water”, “grains of sand” or “pieces of bubblegum”. These are things that have discrete, countable units instead of just a lump of mass. It’s a really useful distinction.

Ok, so how does this gel with my intuitions? And, more importantly, can I describe qualities in such a way that my description has predictive power? (Remember, linguistics is all about building testable models of language use!) I think I can. Let’s roll up our sleeves and get to the knitty-gritty. I’ve got two separate parts of the sentence that go into whether or not I can use “as shit”: the thing(s) being described, and the quality it has. The thing being described can be either singular or plural, and either mass or count. The quality it has can either be continuous or discrete. Let’s put this in outline form to make the possible different conditions a bit easier to see:

  • Thing being described
    • Is it singular? If yes, is it:
      • A mass noun? If so, assign condition 1.
      • A count noun? If so, assign condition 2.
    • Is it plural?  If yes, is it:
      • A mass noun? If so, assign condition TRICK QUESTION, because that’s not possible. 😛
      • Is it a count noun? If so, assign condition 3.
  • Qualities: continuous or discrete
    • Is it continuous? If so, assign condition A
    • Is it discrete? If so, assign condition B.

[What’s that, pseudocode? I thought you didn’t do “computer-y code-y math-y things”, Rachael.] Ok, so now we’ve got six possible conditions for a given sentence (1A, 2A, 3A, 1B, 2B and 3B). Which conditions can take “as shit” and why? (Keep in mind, this is just my intuition.

  • 1A: “Water is big  as shit.” = acceptable
  • 2A: “The dog is big as shit.” = acceptable
  • 3A: “The dogs are big as shit.” =  acceptable
  • 1B: “Water is still as shit.” = unacceptable
  • 2B “The dog is still as shit.” = unacceptable
  • 3B: “The dogs are still as shit.” = acceptable

Okay, so a little of my reasoning. I feel very strong that “as shit” serves to intensify the adjective  and you can’t intensify something that’s binary. The light switch it either on or off; it’s can’t be extremely on or extremely off. So all of the B conditions are bad… except for 3B. What is 3B acceptable? Well, for me what I get the sense that what you’re saying is not that you’re intensifying the qualities of each individual but that you’re talking about the group as whole. And if you add up a bunch of binaries (three still dogs and one moving dog) you can get value somewhere in the middle.

But that’s just a really informal little model based on my intuitions and I feel like they’re getting screwed up because I’ve spent way too much time thinking  about this. And now the tea that I was making is getting cold as shit, so I might as well go drink it.

You Are a Linguist

Unless you have a degree in linguistics or are working as a translator (not the same thing, but I’ll get to that later) you probably read the title of this post and immediately thought “No, I’m not.” Trust me, you are. How do I know? Well, a linguist is someone who does two things:

  1. Makes claims about language
  2. Attempts to either verify or disprove these claims (whether they made them or someone else did).

That’s it. There’s no secret cabal of linguists you have to join, you don’t have to speak thirty languages, and you certainly don’t have to have a PhD. I think if you start paying attention, you’ll notice that you do this all the time. Have you ever had a conversation like this?

Lulu: She talks slow.

Max: Really? I’ve never noticed it.

Or maybe one like this:

Lulu: We go to the zoo.

Max: Don’t you mean we’re going to the zoo?

Lulu: No, we go to the zoo all the time.

Max: But we’re going today, so you could have said that “we’re going”.

Lulu: Yeah, but that’s not what I meant.

Bam. You’re a linguist; go you! “But wait a minute,” you say, “I know for a fact that translators are called linguists. Are you saying that just speaking another language doesn’t make you a linguist? Because that’s what I’ve always heard.”

Man, you’ve got the linguistics bug bad. Look at you, bringing up fine semantic distinctions! (Semantics is the study of how words map onto meaning, BTW.) And you’re absolutely right, a linguist can also be someone who speaks more than one language. The Oxford English Dictionary, the most complete record of the English language, defines a linguist as, first:

“One who is skilled in the use of languages; one who is master of other tongues besides his own. (Often with adj. indicating the degree or extent of the person’s skill.)”

And only later as:

A student of language; a philologist.”

Philology is what the very beginnings of the modern study of language were called. These days, most people prefer the term “linguistics”, and only use philology for a certain field of study within linguistics. For the purposes of this blog and most academic settings, a linguist is not someone who knows languages, but someone who knows about languages. And since knowing a language also automatically means you know about a language–if you’re a native English speaker, you can easily identify where people are from based on their accent, for example–you, sir or madam or other, are a linguist.