08 June 2006

Blogroll update

Just added a few links for other language blogs to the blogroll. Some of them are pretty new, and seem to promise partial if not total linguistic content. There's a few others I've been meaning to add for a while, too.

06 June 2006

headless compound story

Several months ago I posted a brief anecdote about a shrimp salad ... briefly, it was vaguely humourous in that the person who ordered it wanted no shrimp. In a hurry to post it at the time, I gave it the title "headless compound or what" without thinking about it.

Fast forward til last week, when glancing over my site meter stats, I noticed a surge in referrals from Google searches on "headless compounds" (that is, if 3 can be considered a surge, which I think it is in the modest readership of an off-piste linguablog like this one).

It gave me the brief hunch that a student somewhere needed an example of a headless compound for a paper; and if so, I hope they didn't use the notion of a shrimp salad with no shrimp (or at least I hope they didn't cite me). Here's why: it's not a headless compound. Headless compounds are compound structures in which the right element is not really the semantic head of the compound; at least, that's how they're discussed in Pinker's The Language Instinct.

Pinker invokes the notion of headlessness to explain the resistance to irregular pluralization in compounds like low-lifes, Maple Leafs, tenderfoots, and sabretooths. The argument is that a low-life is not a kind of life, and a tenderfoot is not a kind of foot, and so on. Since the basic meaning of each of these is hidden, so is its access to irregular plural morphology (as in lives, leaves, feet, teeth).

Under this understanding of the term, shrimp salad would be a headless compound if it referred to something like the plate one serves shrimp salad on, or if it referred to anything else, as long as it's not a kind of salad. (Wait - did just say plate of shrimp?)

Ironically, not only is shrimp salad not headless, I don't even think it's a compound - in the original anecdote, and in my mind since, it has primary stress on salad, when compounds typically have stress on their first element.

Now if only headless compound were not a kind of compound...

01 June 2006

this ever happen to you?

There I was, watching the Scripps National Spelling Bee, when one of the contestants was temporarily disqualified for apparently misspelling hechsher. She'd actually had it right, but the judges had it down as hechscher, and she was dinged. Everything turned out OK though, as they realized their error and overturned the decision before the next round.

Not normally one to blog about spelling, but I ran off to look up hechsher in OED - neither spelling is there, but {hechsher} outnumbers {hechscher} on google by 40K to 715. M-W has only hechsher. Sounds like this is not a case of competing spellings; the judges were working with a misspelling.

Then while online I passed through Yahoo and saw the following clearly absurd headline: Scientist recreates Mona Lisa's voice (it's already gone). Gee, I thought, I wonder if anyone on Language Log has picked this up yet - and when I checked, I instead found out the winner of the Spelling Bee before the west coast telecast had concluded!

Back to the spelling bee, the next contestant had to spell kamaaina, "a long time resident of Hawai'i". The pronouncer kept saying [ka.ma.ʔai.na], with a highly obvious glottal stop separating the second from third syllable. So if I was the kid, I would have spelled it k-a-m-a-apostrophe-a-i-n-a (actually, I should have said 'okina instead of apostrophe). But the target for the judges had neither apostrophe nor 'okina, and the contestant spelled the word without it, and moved on to the next round. So we don't know what would have happened had the contestant included an apostrophe.

But the commentator was moved to say "this kid put his knowledge of Hawaiian phonetics to work - that was a totally phonetic spelling as far as Hawaiian goes". I guess we have to say, not quite, but as good as you can get with no symbol for a glottal stop. In turns out the glottal stop really is there in the actual Hawaiian word (will double-check the print dictionary tomorrow), but the spelling required for the bee had no symbol for it. [Update 6/2: Pukui & Elbert's Hawaiian English dictionary has kamaʻāina]

Back to google. {kamaaina} gets 322K pages, many of which actually have kama'aina on them. {kama'aina} only gets 196K pages, and Google asks if you mean kamaaina, with no apostrophe. It looks like, in this case, we need to tell Google, no, I meant what I searched for. Meanwhile, this Wikipedia article uses kamaʻāina (with the 'okina), while Webster lists kamaaina (without any 'okina, but with kama'Aina as its etymology).

I'm not here to nitpick, but I think both cases highlight a problem with this whole scenario. The competition is so dependent on borrowings for its difficult rounds, that when the target is taken from a language with a different writing system, with competing means of transliteration into English spelling, problems like these are bound to come up. It's a good thing both kids were allowed to move on despite this.