Thursday, April 29, 2010

Some Random Thoughts

This semester I've been tutoring for an undergraduate semantics course, which has been a whole lot of fun. I really like semantics (basically: word meaning) because everyone has an opinion on what a word means, and sometimes hold to that quite passionately.

The first assignment involved discussing the word 'random'. Random is a great word to discuss in semantics because it's recently been getting a workout in colloquial senses such as:

"Everyone at the party was dressed so randomly"

"Zomg last night I got so drunk I made out with some random"

What concerned me in the assignment were the number of people that said things like 'their clothing was not worn with equal chance of all items of clothing being chosen and therefore this is not a legitimate use of the word.' It scares me that people can't see a colloquial usage of a word as legitimate - considering that more people probably use it more often in more contexts than the statistical sense.

What really concerned me about some people's analysis is that they tried to argue that the statistical sense of random precedes the more general sense of being without observable pattern or explanation to the speaker. A cursory read of the Oxford English Dictionary shows that the earliest citation for the general sense is 1655 while the first for the specific statistical sense is 1884( ).

It's one thing to make close-minded judgments about language use, it's another thing to be too lazy to consult a dictionary...

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Ask a Linguistic

Friday post is on a Saturday today. Friday has become cake day in our office, which can hamper productivity levels for things like working and blogging...

Recently, an email went around the department from a television producer looking for someone with a TV friendly personality and a savvy knowledge of linguistics to be a regular guest on a show that's in the pipeline. They had put the call out for a "Linguistic".

Now, people who are practitioners of linguistics call themselves linguists, I don't know anyone who would refer to themselves as a linguistic.

English has a full and rich collection of derivational morphology - that's the collection of affixes you can stick on words that makes them change a little in their function, and normally changes their word class (inflectional morphology makes tenses and plurals and what-not). So someone who teaches is a 'teach-er', someone who dances is a 'danc-er'. But English is very god at not been consistent across the board with this, a butcher doesn't butch, someone who judges isn't a judger, and philosopher doesn't really philosoph.

Calling someone who works on linguistic things a linguistic is following one expected pattern - you have people that can be a medic, psychic and diabetic. They're strange because -ic things normally act as adjectives, but they can occasionally be nouns. Still, I think it'll be a while before I start referring to myself as a linguistic on my resume...

Friday, April 16, 2010

The awkward turtle

This week's random Friday post comes back to an old pet topic of mine - gesture. It also comes back to a rather new pet topic of mine - no longer feeling particularly young.

a while ago language log had a post about the word 'awkward', looking at its current usage and how it's extended its meaning and application of late:

One thing that caught my attention was how the phrase 'awkward turtle' has been coined, as though it were some kind of aquatic guardian of unfortunate situations. Invoking the 'awkward turtle' is often accompanied a symbolic turtle gesture with one hand placed palm down over the other hand, also palm down, and the thumbs are rotated to represent a swimming turtle. Most interestingly, now this gesture is performed without speech.

Interestingly, although the origin of this gestural practice is said to be in US colleges, the gesture is not actually the American Sign Language (ASL) sign for turtle, this is:

Apparently the 'awkward turtle' sign is actually ASL for platypus, although I can't find a picture to attest to that. The sign though, is the Auslan sign for turtle:

I thought it was a pretty cute gesture, and I thought I'd ask my little sister if she'd heard of it. The reply was an exasperated sigh and an incredulous stare, as though I must be living the life of a hermit to not know about the awkward turtle. Yup - I now know only what's hip if a bunch of professors half way around the world inform me .

Monday, April 12, 2010

Feeling useful

Over the weekend I was talking with a friend of a friend who was thinking of getting a new tattoo of the Tibetan for 'courage'.

She said she'd been having trouble finding a source on the internet, and I said that I had a few Tibetan books that I could look up. Given how close the languages I work on are to Tibetan I have had vague plans for a while now to learn some of it - especially as it has a history of literature and its own script it's in a far better position than most of the languages in the family. To date, this has only extended to me purchasing books and leaving them on my shelf, which is where most of my good intentions dwell.

So today I did a bit of reading and photocopying and sent off the word, in Tibetan and also its pronunciation. It was the first time in a long time I felt I'd done something distinctly practical and useful with the knowledge I've accumulated this past year.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

He is a total douche....

Now I've been home for a while and am no longer living in my very insular little Nepali Linguistics universe, I thought I would try and make an effort to post every Friday-ish on general linguistic topics that tickle my fancy.

This week's has occurred because my sister has taken to using the phrase 'douche canoe' as a term of disparagement, and the other week I was reading a column in the Good Weekend where someone was referred to as a 'douche banjo' (at least I think it was banjo, I'm still trying to track that one down if anyone out there keeps old copies of the paper floating around).

I am more than familiar with the offensive term 'douche bag'. A douche bag is actually an item of medical use - it's the bag on the douche (itself taken from the French for shower) where fluid is kept. The whole get up is to clean out any bodily orifices, although people generally seem fixated on the vagina (as usual).

The Oxford English Dictionary gives its usual useful but dry definition as:

2. (b) U.S. slang, a general term of disparagement, esp. for an unattractive or boring person;

I'm not sure that captures it for me - I tend to use it more for idiots that are trying to punch above their weight and failing miserably, often while drunk. Also, unlike the OED, I'm quite happy to use the word douche in isolation as still mean basically the same thing.

But until a couple of weeks ago, I'd never heard any combination other than douche bag. My unprofessional opinion is that 'douche bag' was picked up as a term of insult, reduced to 'douche', then people forgot that a douche bag was a read piece of medical equipment, and began assuming it was just a random conjunction and added what they felt like.

Does anyone else use douche canoe, or douche banjo? Or are there any other wacky combinations that you use? Also, does your definition of douche differ from mine or the OED?

Wednesday, April 7, 2010


Sorry, this post has been a little slow in the writing - I'll attribute it to some kind of post-confirmation-brain-slush.

For those that I neglected to properly explain this process to the first time, confirmation is rather like going from being an L-Plate researcher to being a P-plater. It involves writing a 12,000 word paper on work to date (and with a field trip under my belt I had a lot to write), as well as a presentation in front of the department, and a meeting with my supervisory panel.

Given that the document was longer than my honours thesis, and written in less than two months, it was always going to be very much a work in progress. It's a good point at which to sit down, and really force some of those ideas that have been kicking around to become a little less vague.

As an overall process it's been good. I certainly feel a bit more focused that I was before-hand. It's been a bit of a strange process though. Normally you hand in a paper, or an honours thesis and it's done and finished. But with confirmation there is an immediate barrage of feedback. Not that that's a bad thing - there's still another 2 years work of work to do. But it means that any complement paid is balanced with a wealth of ways to start looking forward. The report and presentation have not only made clear all those vague thoughts I've had for the last year or so, but it's also illuminated the mind-numbing amount of work that needs to be done before my thesis begins to sound even half convincing.