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Archive for April, 2007

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.

Joke of the Day: Freedom of the Press

Monday, April 16th, 2007

The most important lesson of the circus over Don Imus’s racial slur is the clarity it brings to who controls the US media. According to the reports I heard, the managers at NBC News and CBS Radio were trying to decide how to handle the situation until advertisers began to cancel. That settled the matter. What Imus said was of secondary importance at best—indeed, he was hired to make outrageous statements; the crucial issue was that the people who pay are upset.

I taught Russian and Soviet history for 20 years back in the bad old days when most Soviet news came from Pravda “Truth” and Izvestia “News”. The going joke in the USSR at the time was that there was no Truth in the “News” and no News in the “Truth”. I made the point that freedom of the press was encumbered in both countries by advertisers: the major difference between censorship in the USSR and in the US was that in the USSR there was only one advertiser, the Communist Party.

I think the point was very near the truth. Over the recent decades the focus of the US media has continually narrowed. News that reflects critically on minorities and women has been notably muted and news that reflects badly on large corporations has been eliminated completely. One of the greatest scandals of the past century, the Enron catastrophe, was discovered by government authorities and only reported when they announced it. Ditto Tyco, Worldcom, and similar disgraces.

The only object of criticism left to the US media is the government. When the goverment discovered a decade or so ago that corporations were defrauding it by charging outlandish prices for ash trays and hammers, the press immediatley attacked the government for wasteful spending. No news organization pursued the issue into the fraudulent corporations. Those corporations continue to determine what we can and cannot hear or see in the US.

The good news is the Internet and the Web. The reason mainstream media are moving to greater and greater extremes is that they are losing not only credibility but viewers and listeners to growing competition especially from the medium you are reading right now. However unreliable the Web may be for news, at least it is not controlled by corporations who add unseen taxes to the products we buy and use that money to leverage their view of the world on the mainstream media.

Big Brother is and always has been Corporate America and the Internet shows us what genuine free speech is, warts and all.

Deciders and Decision-Makers

Friday, April 13th, 2007

I often come to words in the news long after they are in the news (the price of thinking things through before writing). Today I had a stray thought about our president’s reference to himself as a decider rather than a decision-maker. (Don’t ask why this word popped in my head while I was working out.)

Last April, almost a year ago today, Mr. Bush declared, “But I’m the decider and I decide what’s best. And what’s best is for Don Rumsfeld to remain as the secretary of defense” The issue here is: What is wrong with decider? Someone who rides is a rider, someone who fights is a fighter, someone who plods is a plodder. So why is someone who decides a decision-maker? And why is decider funny?

The answer—I think—is sociolinguistic. We all make decisions every day and in that sense we are all deciders. That sense is trivial, so trivial we never use the word although it is a perfectly legitimate word found in most dictionaries. The word is used mostly in sports for a play that decides the final score and the winner.

The only sense in which this word is really needed is to refer to someone who regularly decides for other people and that person is usually in such an august managerial position that a trivial word will not do. Instead of using decided to refer to such panjandra, we go to the phrase, “make decisions”, and use the nominalization of that phrase: decision-maker.

The president’s use of decider, then, was funny because it trivialized what he was talking about: his own role as a decision-maker for the nation. Maybe you already knew that. I just figured it out this morning.

Imus in the Garden of Forbidden Words

Thursday, April 12th, 2007

I could never understand why people listened to Don Imus, a rather  mean-spirited schlock radio talk show host given to haranguing the rich and famous in unenlightening ways. I would be happy that he is gone except I know he will be replaced by someone worse, another enemy of education who prefers ad hominem nastiness to reasoned discussion.

However, the uproar in the news over the loss of such an insignificant mind might seem totally bewildering. Every African and European American TV personality has been hammering for a week now the same blatantly obvious point: Imus let a racial slur slip out on a live mike. Notice the charge is not that Imus is a racist but that he uttered two prohibited words that offended the women’s basketball team of Rutgers University.

So the substantive issue is that Don Imus’s comment offended the Rutgers team. Don Imus? Offend someone? His infamous insults of President and Mrs. Clinton received less press coverage than the racist phrase (which the media love to repeat). He has insulted everyone on Earth whose name has made the news. I’ve seen two interviews with the Rutgers team in which all members seemed bewildered themselves. The issue is not effrontery or racism.

The issue in this brouhaha is the words themselves. Words, as I have also said several times are far more powerful than their size suggests. Every language maintains a list of forbidden lexical fruit we are not allowed to touch. 50 years ago this list contained what we called “profanity”, nonmedical terms referring to sex and the organs involved in it. These words have become commonplace now so we need a new list. Keep in mind, the point is not the meaning of the words or what they symbolize: the point is the list itself. Unlikely as it may seem, every language must have a list of sacred words that no one is supposed to utter.

The important point is that a section of language is designated to be taboo and protected by fear. It has to be set aside, a challenge (not an impossibility) for children to learn, and protected by fear of social ostracism. Why? It just has to be; probably a part of human character—perhaps related to some need to whisper.

If Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, and the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley in the 60s were all ahead of their time in digging up the old garden of forbidden words, maybe Don Imus is just ahead of his time. Maybe it is time to destroy the current list as we draw up an even newer one. Or maybe Imus is just behind the times and should move on.

No Escaping the Oddity of ‘Escapee’

Thursday, April 5th, 2007

Trevor T. some time ago raised an interesting question: “Why is someone who escapes called an “escapee”? Shouldn’t they be called an “escaper”? The prison, being the thing that is escaped from, should be the “escapee” I would’ve thought. Otherwise it implies that the prison has escaped from around the prisoner, rather than the prisoner from inside the prison. Does that make sense?”

The -ee is used to indicate the object of the underlying verb in noun derivations, e.g. employee “someone who is employed”, inductee “someone who is inducted”, confirmee “someone who is confirmed”. The suffix -er is usually used to mark the subject relationship: employer “someone who employs”, inductor “someone who inducts”, confirmer “someone who confirms.”

However, there is a strong tendency for English to use -ee to denote the subject of intransitive verbs (those that do not take direct objects): standee “someone who stands”, retiree “someone who retires”, waitee “someone who waits”, escape : escapee “someone who escapes”. This is because of a tendency among intransitive verbs for the subject to be the “undergoer of the action”, the same definition as the object of transitive verbs. You can’t wait someone in the sense of waitee but the person waiting undergoes the process of waiting.

So, in some sense linguists are not quite sure of, the objects of transitive verbs are semantically similar to the subjects of intransitive verbs and the distribution of -er and -ee tends to reflect the semantic rather than the syntactic differences.