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Archive for the 'Language Research' Category

Noise about ‘Noisome’

Wednesday, June 2nd, 2010

Rob Nollan wrote today:

“First, let me tell you that I love your Dr. Goodword’s daily e-mail. Even when I’m too busy to read it, if I click on the mail and begin reading, I get sucked in and can’t escape. Your writing and wit make lexical discovery so much fun!”

“So…you state that noisome should not be confused with noise. But it isn’t too much of a stretch to recognize that noise comes from the Latin nausea which has nothing to do with sound, either.”

“Tracking the actual origin of words through historical usage is beyond my ability, but it seems to me that noise and noisome share identical meanings, other than the fact that one usually refers to sound and the other is an adjective.”

“Therefore, my question is this: how do you trace these words to know that noise and noisome really aren’t related? Just curious. Thanks for the great work!”

Here is, in a nutshell, how we do it. We follow the spelling of the word in historical documents as far as they go. Some languages have been preserved in many documents over long periods of time, some in few over only short periods, and yet others, in none. So that process is often limited.

Greek survives today, as does Latin (in French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian). The same is true of the languages that developed from Sanskrit (Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati, etc.) So, it is fairly easy to trace words back to these languages.

Doing that, we find that noisome unquestionably goes back to ‘in odium’ in Latin. Noise may come from nausea. Nausea is a Latin word based on the Greek word naus “ship” that we see in nautical and navigate. However, it may just as well originate in noxia “harm, damage”; we just aren’t sure. Either way, noise and noisome are probably two different words that are coincidentally  spelled similarly today.

Why aren’t we sure of the origin of noise? Even if there are written documents available, when talking about a span of 2000 years, there will be gaps of hundreds of years in which no written evidence has survived but the spoken language continued to change.

For those gaps etymologists apply rules learned from examining thousands of similar words without gaps over the same time period. That usually works, but not always. What we can’t predict are changes caused by the influence of other languages, people playing with their language, confusion of one word with another, and similar accidental phenomena.

It is fun, as you have discovered, but it is also revealing. I devote so much space in the daily Good Words to their histories  because words express us as surely as we express them. They express our ideas and attitudes. Their histories often provide insights into our cultures and especially the changes in our attitudes and thought over the centuries.

How do Syntax and Semantics Get Along?

Friday, May 2nd, 2008

Jere Mitchum dropped us this note Monday:

“I’ve been concerned about the awkward placement of only in present day writing. This example is from your April 27th discussion of denouement:

‘It has only been in the language since the latter half of the 18th century, so it has changed little.’

It seems to me that only should be next to since because the sentence means it has been in the language only since the latter half of the 18th century.”

“Another recent example may be clearer: ‘We were only able to book six travelers.’

Only here modifies six, not able. Why not place it next to the word it modifies?”

My response to Jere was so long that I haven’t heard from him since. The reason I was swept away in my answer to this question is that it touches on one of the most fascinating aspects of language: how it is processed by the human brain.

In fact, language comprises several layers of mental rules that operate independently but simultaneously. The semantic regions in our brains feed on syntactic and morphological (word form) regions but maintain their own set of rules and acceptable relationships.

This means that the semantic operations of our minds put the semantic components of a sentence together in a way vastly different from the way syntatic rules put words together. The classic example is, “An occasional sailor walked by.” I think most English speakers would accept this sentence even though ”an occasional sailor” here does not refer to someone who occasionally sails.

Even though the adjective occasional is perfectly at home before the noun sailor syntactically, its meaning does not combine sensibly with sailor in this sentence. So, the semantic component in our brains simply looks and finds another word in the sentence whose meaning the adjective makes sense with, and we understand the sentence as quickly as we would have had syntax placed occasionally before walked.

I have published quite a bit of scholarship about noun phrases like criminal lawyer and old friend. A lawyer doesn’t have to be crimnal to practice criminal law (though some wag might suggest it would help). Again here, the semantic rules dig into the syntactic stuff of this phrase and decide that the suffix -(y)er has more likely been added to the phrase criminal law than simply to law. Piece of cake.

While an old friend may be old, the semantic operator in our brains is happy if only the friendship is old. The definition of friend is “member of a friendship” so, at the semantic level, old may modify either main semantic concept: “old member” or “old friendship”. Semantics operates on semantic objects, not syntactic or morphological ones. Makes sense.

The syntactic component of our mind ’reads’ morphological rules, and follows hints laid down by suffixes and the like: occasional goes well with sailor but three does not, since adjectives may modify nouns syntactically but numbers above one require a plural noun. This information helps semantics but doesn’t do its job for it.

The semantic component in our minds operates on logic: which words make sense together? Semantics looks for the most likely combinations whether the syntactic construction helps or not. Semantics considers syntactic rules suggestions, not laws.

I find it fascinating that we can collect examples like these prove that our brain contains a language processor that comprises distinct parts (levels, subcomponents) that talk to each other but have their own rule-governed characters. Linguists today are exploring the interactions between these parts and the discoveries they are making are truly remarkable.

Anger Inducement Therapy

Tuesday, July 10th, 2007

A friend of mine has convinced her husband that he needs anger management therapy. Anger management has become a major catchphrase, probably one of the many terms introduced by the medical and pharmaceutical industry to convince us that we need their products and services. This one has become so popular that Jack Nicholson has made a movie about it.

I have some linguistic qualms about this popular term. The first is its redundancy. Anger in the legal system is now called “snapping” or, more technically, “temporary insanity”. We have lawyers and the occasional jury who think that perfectly normal people can, in the midst of a perfectly normal day, “snap”, become temporarily insane, kill someone, then snap back to normality, never to be susceptible to “snapping” again.

There may be some truth to this but until several years ago, snapping was losing control of your temper and was considered normal if uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous. So my first suggestion would be to change anger management to snap management just to avoid the proliferation of synonyms.

But returning to my friend’s case, I have to wonder why we don’t offer anger inducement therapy, since the reason my friend snaps is an overly demanding wife who would drive the Pope crazy. It is funny how phrases like anger management focus our attention on one interpretation of a problem while allowing other aspects of the same problem to slip into the shadows. Maybe not so funny.

Generally, when someone loses their temper it is because someone else irritates them. Whether the fit of anger is disproportionate to the inducement of it or vice versa is a matter of degree but the focus of the therapy should be equally on both the anger or the inducement thereof. If both is offered, we need a term for anger inducement alongside anger managment. I suggest “anger inducement”.

Anger inducement therapists would make a fortune in Washington, DC.

So what is Reading, Anyway?

Monday, April 30th, 2007

Harvard Visual Cognition LabOne of the truths uncovered by psychological research over the past half century is that language involves four faculties: reading, writing, speaking, and comprehension. While all four faculties are interrelated, they are physically located in different parts of the brain. Our writing skills are located around the memory associate area of whichever hand we use to write with, reading skills center around the memory association area of the visual processing, while speaking and comprehension are associated with areas that have their own names: Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas. Broca’s area is just behind the left eye and Wernicke’s area is not far away; just over the left ear.

A lot of research has been conducted to test Broca’s and Wernicke’s area—that is probably why they are named. But far less research has looked into reading and writing. Now the Visual Cognition Lab at Harvard is beginning to remedy that omission with a series of studies on learning letters and they need online subjects.

What this means is that not only can you learn the results of this research even before the New York Times, you can be a part of it. It doesn’t hurt and costs only 5 minutes of your time. Dr. Goodword has taken the test and thinks that this is good work and deserves the support of all of us interested in language. Click below (or the Harvard insignia above) to see what it is all about.

Of course, the experiment will only work if you do not know what is going on until you have completed the tests. Any mental preparation would contaminate the results.