Data and “Data”

Language Log posted two comic strips today, and I mentioned one of them in a comment about the other.

Here’s today’s xkcd (Language Log post):

There's no

And here’s a recent PhD Comics (Language Log post):

And my comment:

Reading the strip panel by panel, I wondered what the “deep philosophical question” would be. My guess was that the question would be about the role of etymological information in the process of deciding which of various constructions in current use would fit best in a particular context. How exactly you get from that stylistic process to a “deep philosophical question” about the nature of language in four panels and still have room for a punchline isn’t clear to me, but hey, PhD Comics is a big enough deal that I assume Jorge Cham can pull it off.

Instead we get this claim that “It depends on whether you consider data to be facts (plural) or information (which is singular.)” To which the only appropriate response is: No, it doesn’t! English speakers treat the words “scissors” and “trousers” as grammatical plurals, from which it does not at all follow that we “consider” the things they name to be in any sense multiple. It is all too similar to today’s xkcd, which you reproduce in today’s other post, except that relatively few of the people who like to say “There is no ‘I’ in team” seriously believe that they are raising a “deep philosophical question.”

I recommend all the other comments on the Language Log thread, it’s a mix of interesting observations, erudite humor, and speculation about the love life of the robot from Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Our old page of links to sites about Language and Linguistics

Time to say goodbye to our page of links to sites about Language and Linguistics.  Here’s the last revision, made 1 November 2012: (more…)

WEIRD laughter

Recently, several websites I follow have posted remarks about theories that are meant to explain why some things strike people as funny.

Zach Weinersmith, creator of Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, wrote an essay called “An artificial One-Liner Generator” in which he advanced a tentative theory of humor as problem-solving.

Slate is running a series of articles on theoretical questions regarding things that make people laugh.  The first piece, called “What Makes Something Funny,” gives a lot of credit to a researcher named Peter McGraw, who is among the pioneers of “Benign Violation Theory.”  This is perhaps unsurprising, since Professor McGraw and his collaborator Joel Warner are credited as the authors of the piece.  Professor McGraw and Mr Warner summarize earlier theories of humor thus:

Plato and Aristotle introduced the superiority theory, the idea that people laugh at the misfortune of others. Their premise seems to explain teasing and slapstick, but it doesn’t work well for knock-knock jokes. Sigmund Freud argued for his relief theory, the concept that humor is a way for people to release psychological tension, overcome their inhibitions, and reveal their suppressed fears and desires. His theory works well for dirty jokes, less well for (most) puns.

The majority of humor experts today subscribe to some variation of the incongruity theory, the idea that humor arises when there’s an inconsistency between what people expect to happen and what actually happens.

Professor McGraw and Mr Warner claim that incongruity theory does not stand up well to empirical testing:

Incongruity has a lot going for it—jokes with punch lines, for example, fit well. But scientists have found that in comedy, unexpectedness is overrated. In 1974, two University of Tennessee professors had undergraduates listen to a variety of Bill Cosby and Phyllis Diller routines. Before each punch line, the researchers stopped the tape and asked the students to predict what was coming next, as a measure of the jokes’ predictability. Then another group of students was asked to rate the funniness of each of the comedians’ jokes. The predictable punch lines turned out to be rated considerably funnier than those that were unexpected—the opposite of what you’d expect to happen according to incongruity theory.

To which one might reply that when Mr Cosby and Ms Diller actually performed their routines, they didn’t stop after the setup and ask the audience to predict the punchline.  Nor would any audience member who wanted to enjoy the show be likely to try to predict the punchline.  Doing so would make for an entirely different experience than the one the audience had paid for.

Be that as it may, Professor McGraw and Mr Warner go on to claim that their theory of “benign violation” is supported by empirical evidence:

Working with his collaborator Caleb Warren and building from a 1998 HUMOR article published by a linguist named Thomas Veatch, he hit upon the benign violation theory, the idea that humor arises when something seems wrong or threatening, but is simultaneously OK or safe.

After extolling some of the theory’s strengths, the authors go on:

Naturally, almost as soon as McGraw unveiled the benign violation theory, people began to challenge it, trying to come up with some zinger, gag, or “yo momma” joke that doesn’t fit the theory. But McGraw believes humor theorists have engaged in such thought experiments and rhetorical debates for too long. Instead, he’s turned to science, running his theory through the rigors of lab experimentation.

The results have been encouraging. In one [Humor Research Laboratory] experiment, a researcher approached subjects on campus and asked them to read a scenario based on a rumor about legendarily depraved Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards. In the story—which might or might not be true—Keith’s father tells his son to do whatever he wishes with his cremated remains—so when his father dies, Keith decides to snort them. Meanwhile the researcher (who didn’t know what the participants were reading) gauged their facial expressions as they perused the story. The subjects were then asked about their reactions to the stories. Did they find the story wrong, not wrong at all, a bit of both, or neither? As it turned out, those who found the tale simultaneously “wrong” (a violation) and “not wrong” (benign) were three times more likely to smile or laugh than either those who deemed the story either completely OK or utterly unacceptable.

In a related experiment, participants read a story about a church that was giving away a Hummer H2 to a lucky member of its congregation, and were then asked if they found it funny. Participants who were regular churchgoers found the idea of mixing the sanctity of Christianity with a four-wheeled symbol of secular excess significantly less humorous than people who rarely go to church. Those less committed to Christianity, in other words, were more likely to find a holy Hummer benign and therefore funnier.

Lately, social scientists in general have been more mindful than usual of the ways in which North American undergraduates are something other than a perfectly representative sample of the human race.  Joseph Henrich, Steven Heine, and Ara Noranzayan have gone so far as to ask in the title of a widely cited paper whether the populations most readily available for study by psychologists and other social scientists are in fact  “The weirdest people in the world?”  In that paper, Professors Henrich, Heine, and Noranzayan use the acronym “WEIRD,” meaning Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic.  Their abstract:

Behavioral scientists routinely publish broad claims about human psychology and behavior in the world’s top journals based on samples drawn entirely from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD) societies. Researchers – often implicitly – assume that either there is little variation across human populations, or that these “standard subjects” are as representative of the species as any other population. Are these assumptions justified? Here, our review of the comparative database from across the behavioral sciences suggests both that there is substantial variability in experimental results across populations and that WEIRD subjects are particularly unusual compared with the rest of the species – frequent outliers. The domains reviewed include visual perception, fairness, cooperation, spatial reasoning, categorization and inferential induction, moral reasoning, reasoning styles, self-concepts and related motivations, and the heritability of IQ. The findings suggest that members of WEIRD societies, including young children, are among the least representative populations one could find for generalizing about humans. Many of these findings involve domains that are associated with fundamental aspects of psychology, motivation, and behavior – hence, there are no obvious a priori grounds for claiming that a particular behavioral phenomenon is universal based on sampling from a single subpopulation. Overall, these empirical patterns suggests that we need to be less cavalier in addressing questions of human nature on the basis of data drawn from this particularly thin, and rather unusual, slice of humanity. We close by proposing ways to structurally re-organize the behavioral sciences to best tackle these challenges.

It would be particularly easy to see why a theory like Benign Violation would have a special appeal to undergraduates.  Undergraduate students are rewarded for learning to follow sets of rules, both the rules of academic disciplines which their teachers expect them to internalize and the rules of social behavior appropriate to people who,like most undergraduates, are living independent adult lives for the first time.  So, I suppose if one wanted to defend Superiority Theory (as for example mentioned by Aristotle in his Poetics, 1449a, p. 34-35,) one would be able to use the same results, saying that students simultaneously saw themselves as superior both to the characters in the jokes who did not follow the usual rules and to those who would enforce those rules in too narrowly literalistic a fashion to fit with the overall approach of higher education, where innovation and flexibility are highly valued.  Here the WEIRD phenomenon comes into play as well, since cultures vary in their ideas of what rules are and what relationship they have to qualities like innovation and flexibility.  Moreover, one could also say that the judgment that a particular violation is or is not benign itself implies superiority over those involved in the violation, and that this implication of superiority is what generates laughter.

Also, because undergraduates are continually under pressure to internalize one set of rules after another, they often show anxiety related to sets of rules.  This may not be the sort of thing Sigmund Freud had in mind when he talked about Oedipal anxiety, but it certainly does drive undergraduates to seek relief.  Example of action that is at once quite all right and by no means in accordance with the rules may well provide that relief.

Incongruity theorists may find comfort in Professor McGraw’s results, as well.  The very name “Benign Violation” as well as experimental rubrics such as “wrong” and “not wrong” are incongruous combinations by any definition.  So a defender of Incongruity Theory may claim Benign Violation as a subcategory of Incongruity Theory, and cite these results in support of that classification.

Professor McGraw is evidently aware of these limitations.  He and Mr Warner explain what they did to rise above them:

[T]hree years ago, he set off on an international exploration of the wide world of humor—with me, a Denver-based journalist, along for the ride to chronicle exactly what transpired. Our journey took us from Japan to the West Bank to the heart of the Amazon, in search of various zingers, wisecracks and punch lines that would help explain humor once and for all. The result is The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, to be published next week—on April Fool’s Day, naturally. As is often the case with good experiments—not to mention many of the funniest gags—not everything went exactly as planned, but we learned a lot about what makes the world laugh.

It isn’t April First yet, so I don’t know how well they have done in their efforts to expand their scope.

One sentence that struck me wrong in Professor McGraw and Mr Warner’s piece was this one, about Superiority Theory, that it “seems to explain teasing and slapstick, but it doesn’t work well for knock-knock jokes.”  I’m not at all sure about that one.  In a knock-knock joke, there are two hypothetical characters who take turns delivering five lines of dialogue.  The first character to speak is the Knocker (whose first line is always “Knock-knock!”)  The second character to speak is the Interlocutor (whose first line is always “Who’s there?”)  The Knocker’s second line is an unsatisfactory answer to this question.  The Interlocutor’s second line begins by repeating this incomplete answer, then adds the question word “who?”  The Knocker’s third line then delivers the punchline in the form of a repetition of the unsatisfactory answer followed by one or more additional syllables that change the apparent meaning of the initial unsatisfactory answer.

Knock-knock jokes became popular in the USA in the 1950s, as part of a national craze.  The first joke recorded in this mid-twentieth century craze, I have read, is the following:

K: Knock-knock!

I: Who’s there?

K: Sam and Janet.

I: Sam and Janet who?

K: Sam and Janet evening! (sung to the tune of this song)

Apparently all of the jokes that brought the form into such prominence in the 1950s that they are still beloved today by seven-year-olds of all ages took this form, in which the punchline involved the Knocker bursting into song with a popular Broadway tune of the period.

I think the jokes from this original craze almost have to be examples of superiority.  The Knocker is confident that the Interlocutor will be surprised when the punchline is presented under the usual conditions of the joke.  This is not to deny that if the joke were interrupted and the Interlocutor were asked to predict the punchline, after the manner of Professor McGraw’s students the Interlocutor might be able to do so.  When it is presented the Interlocutor will join in his or her satisfaction at being part of the relatively elite portion of the population who recognize current Broadway hits when they hear them.

As knock-knock jokes have become more familiar over the decades, meta-knock-knock jokes have gained a following.  For example, a person named Alice might play the Knocker in this joke:

K: Knock knock!

I: Who’s there?

K: Alice.

I: Alice who?

K: Alice (in a tone suggesting that she is wounded that the Interlocutor doesn’t recognize her)

The met-knock-knock joke suggests superiority to the genre of knock-knock jokes.  If first-order knock-knock jokes are popular among seven-year-olds of all ages, meta-knock-knock jokes are popular among eight-year-olds of all ages, suggesting superiority to those who still persist in telling first-order knock-knock jokes.

The world’s most hated knock-knock joke is this meta-knock-knock:

K: Knock, knock.
I: Who’s there?
K: Banana.
I: Banana who?
K: Knock, knock.
I: Who’s there?
K: Banana.
I: Banana who?
K: Knock, knock.
I: Who’s there?
K: Orange.
I: Orange who?

This joke attacks the several parts of the shared understanding between Knocker and Interlocutor.  The joke is more than five lines long, the fifth line does not take the form original unsatisfactory response + additional syllable or syllables, the Knocker expects the Interlocutor to repeat his or her two lines multiple times, and the punchline does not include a repetition of the original unsatisfactory response.  For the experienced Interlocutor, these attacks are an undue imposition on the Knocker-Interlocutor relationship.  For anyone else, the whole thing would be utterly pointless.

Hated as the joke is, Knockers of a particular sort, mostly eight-year-old boys, seem unable to resist it.  Willing Interlocutors can rely on these boys to laugh uproariously every time they drag them through the ritual responses.  Here too, Superiority Theory seems to be the only explanation for the boys’ laughter and the strain tolerating the joke puts on the Interlocutors.  The Knockers who enjoy the joke laugh at their own power to inflict it on their Interlocutors.

Each time a potential Interlocutor is confronted with “Orange you glad I didn’t say banana,” the joke gets a bit more annoying.  Perhaps this is because of an aspect of politeness recently referenced on yet another of my favorite sites, Language Log.  There it was mentioned that Penelope Brown and Stephen Levinson, founders of “Politeness Theory,” have provided conceptual tools to enable us to distinguish between situations in which statements offering information the hearer should already have suggest that the hearer does not already know that information and thereby offend the hearer and those which do not carry that suggestion and which therefore do not offend the hearer.  A joke with a painfully obvious punchline may fall in the first category, as do the reiterated responses in “Orange you glad I didn’t say banana.”  Casual remarks about the weather and other forms of small talk usually fall in the second category, as do formalized utterances generally.

Monday links

1. My favorite right-wing economist, Paul Craig Roberts, argues that the USA is headed for ruin.  He seems pretty happy about it.  (Counterpunch)

2.  Dana Hunter has some things to say about what happened to Pompeii in AD 79.  She isn’t at all happy about it. (Scientific American)

3. Gary Younge points out that the US states that favor the rightwardmost social policies are those which are the biggest net recipients of federal spending.  Makes me wonder when the deficit hawks will suggest kicking them out of the Union. (The Nation)

4. Do countries with ethnically diverse populations have higher homicide rates than those with homogeneous populations?  No, not particularly.  (hbd* chick)

5. Having completed a bachelor’s degree in Classics at Berkeley in 1961 doesn’t necessarily mean that you won’t say something asinine about ancient Greek 51 years later.  (Language Log)

6. According to Jenny Hendrix, Evelyn Waugh’s Helena has some really good bits.  These sentences of Ms Hendrix’ are irresistible:

In recognizing the Magi as patron saints of the unnecessary (what use, exactly, were myrrh and frankincense to the kid?), he reconciles prayer and literary aestheticism. The Wise Men, though committing, as Waugh put it, “every kind of bêtise,” arrive in the end and find their silly gifts accepted. In so doing, they allow for the acceptance of the artist’s gifts as well: “For His sake who did not reject your curious gifts,” Helena entreats, “pray always for all the learned, the oblique, and the delicate.” (Slate)

7. Yes yes yes, cats doing cute things are the ultimate Internet cliche, but I defy you to look at this for less than five seconds: tumblelog)

Tuesday links

1. Mark Shea misses his pet troll, and is advertising for a new one.  If you have some hostilities and want to work them out by taunting a bunch of Roman Catholics, give it a try!

2. Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw” dislikes the word “Warfighter,” and Mark Liberman isn’t sure why.  I have my own theories (here and here.)

3. John Wilkins asks why Darwin’s theories are still controversial, and gives a simple answer.  I suggest a slightly more complex answer.

The Battle of the Acilian Chuckle

Victor Mair is one of the most distinguished scholars of Chinese language and literature in the United States.  Among his many services to the enlightenment of his countrymen are Professor Mair’s frequent contributions to Language Log.

I mention Professor Mair’s great eminence because he and I recently engaged in a remarkably absurd conflict.  (more…)

Charitable speech

Today’s xkcd:

The late philosopher H. Paul Grice tried to make some of these rules explicit; his most famous attempt to do this can be found in his essay “Logic and Conversation,” published in his book Studies in the Way of Words (Harvard U.P., 1989 and 1991, pages 22-40.)  Grice there lays down a set of rules in the form of a series of maxims.  Grice begins with an overarching maxim that he calls the “cooperative principle”: “Make your contribution such as it is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged.”  He breaks the requirements of the cooperative principle down into several maxims.  So, one ought to be truthful, one ought to provide the listener with enough information to make it easy for the listener gather one’s meaning, one ought not to provide the listener with so much information that it is difficult to gather one’s meaning, one ought to provide information that is relevant to the conversation, one ought to express oneself clearly.

As Carole J Lee points out in her article “Gricean Charity: The Gricean Turn in Psychology” (Philosophy of the Social Sciences, 2006; 36(2), 193-218,) what Grice has given us in these maxims are not “universal norms of conversation” (203.)  Still less, despite their phrasing, are Grice’s maxims commands that he would have insisted we follow.  Rather, they are a sketch of the expectations that listeners tend to bring to a conversation.  One tends to expect that a speaker will behave according to the maxims.  When a listener finds that a speaker is systematically violating one or more of the maxims, that listener might react with laughter.  That laughter shows that the listener, relying on the maxims, had constructed a different meaning than the one the speaker intended.  Or, the listener might react with distrust or frustration, if reliance on the maxims has led him or her to a dead end.  A charitable listener will bring these expectations to a conversation, assuming that each speaker is displaying the competence the maxims outline.  To refuse to give a speaker credit for following Grice’s maxims is to fail to show that speaker the charity that makes cooperative communication possible.

In the strip, the hairless stick figure is frustrated by the hairy figure’s decision to “interpret an obviously sympathetic ‘I’m sorry’ as an apology.”  Hairless seems to be frustrated that Hairy is not giving him* credit for following Grice’s maxims.  The maxim of quantity requires that each speaker provide just that information the listener needs; the “Why?” in “Why? It’s not your fault” suggests that he is leaving out something essential, something which his sarcastic reply might supply.  The maxim of relevance requires that each contribution to the conversation bear on the topic at hand; that Hairy would react to a conventional expression of sympathy as she does would suggest that she does not regard Hairless’ sympathies as relevant to a the topic of her mother’s misfortune.  This rejection of Hairless’ expression of sympathy might well strike anyone as rather harsh.

Grice acknowledges that all of the properties that his maxims enjoin are complex.  For example, he says of the maxim of relevance: “Though the maxim itself is terse, its formulation conceals a number of problems that exercise me a good deal: questions about what different kinds and focuses of relevance there may be, how these shift in the course of a talk exchange, how to allow for the fact that subjects of conversations are legitimately changed, and so on.”  Of course, different cultures conceive of relevance in vastly different ways, a fact that serves as the starting point for many studies which question the usefulness of Grice’s maxims as a guide to the analysis of conversational behavior around the world.**

To the extent that Grice’s maxims are an attempt to outline the expectations listeners have of speakers, it is unsurprising that they do not lay injunctions upon listeners.  If we were to complement them with a set of maxims that outline what speakers might reasonably expect from listeners, perhaps the first maxim would call for charity.  That charity would be as multidimensional, and no doubt as culturally specific, as the properties Grice’s listeners expect from speakers.  We might break our maxim of charity into several sub-maxims to give an idea of what the dimensions of this charity might be.  First, assume that the speaker is performing his or her communicative project competently unless s/he provides evidence to the contrary.  One might refer to Grice’s maxims in defining competent communicative performance.  Second, assume that if the speaker has failed to perform his or her communicative project competently, any failures are as small as possible.  So, if a speaker provides a logically invalid argument, a charitable listener might look for the simplest available premise that can be added to make the argument valid.  Third, assume that the speaker is a person of goodwill.  Under this assumption, one should try to find the least obnoxious possible interpretation for any unclear passages.

In the strip, Hairy has been uncharitable to Hairless, albeit in a rather subtle way.  Hairless’ sarcastic response is of course a grossly uncharitable one.  Grice was interested in sarcasm, which he saw as something that happens when when “the maxims are flouted.”  What Hairy flouts in a subtle way is what Hairless responds by flouting in a massive way, the requirements of charity as I have tried to formulate them in the paragraph above.  When speakers think that their listeners are refusing to follow these requirements, they often do respond with anger.

Two examples come to mind.  Recently, I took part in a discussion thread on one of my favorite websites, the mighty Language Log.  One of the mighty Log’s most distinguished authors, linguist Geoffrey Nunberg, posted a little piece about a newspaper columnby a writer named Kathleen Parker.  Parker opens with a story about a brief encounter among a group of about ten strangers sharing an elevator at Presbyterian Hospital in New York City.  Parker was among this group; apparently she had not seen any of the other riders before.  Two riders did know each other, a woman and a man.  The woman spent the moments of the elevator ride shouting at the man.  In the course of her diatribe, the woman called the man a “motherfucker” several times.  By the time this pair left the elevator, the woman had made it clear that the man was her son.  Parker describes the discomfort that she and the other riders displayed while in the sharing the elevator with the shouting woman.  She goes on to allow that coarse words are not in themselves particularly dangerous to the moral health of society, giving as an example of her willingness to tolerate them her relaxed response to a fellow guest at a very proper tea party who called sometime golf champion Tiger Woods an “asshole” in an incongruously “refined accent.”  Still, Parker claims, “Lack of civility in words bleeds into a lack of decency in behavior… An “MF” here or an “FU” there might not constitute the unraveling of society, but each one uttered in another’s involuntary presence is a tiny act of violence against kindness, of which we surely could use more.”

There are any number of things one might say about this column.  It’s interesting that the word “motherfucker” has come to be so frequently used as a symbol of obscenity without any evocation of the meaning of its root words that a mother could unselfconsciously  apply it to her son.  It’s puzzling what Parker means by a “refined accent”; she does say that the tea party guest was British, and evidently she was using what we used to called Received Pronunciation.  But obscenity is now so common a feature of the speech of Britons of all classes that I cannot imagine any vulgar word being incongruous when spoken in any British accent.

What Professor Nunberg in fact chooses to do with the column is to accuse Parker of veiled bigotry.  Noting that Parker’s response to the woman at the tea party had been to say that it would be all right for the woman to curse so long as she used her plummy accent while doing it, Nunberg says: “Now I can come up with at least five contexutal parameters that explain why the public harangues of the elevator expletiviste were obnoxious and offensive in a way that the English (one assumes) woman’s wasn’t. But the posteriority of the initial vowel of the epithet isn’t one of them.”   This is a failure of charity on Professor Nunberg’s part; Parker’s use of the story to show her own relaxed attitude towards a non-threatening use of taboo words makes it clear that she was joking with the woman at the tea party.  Lest we think that Professor Nunberg is himself joking, and merely pretending that he doesn’t see Parker’s joke, he goes on:

Why should it be? Would the incivility of the first woman’s rants have been tempered if she had called her son an asshole in an accent like Emma Thompson’s? Would the tea party lady’s reference to Tiger Woods be more offensive if the woman had sounded like Wanda Sykes? While we’re on the subject of vulgarity — and insolence — can we linger for a moment on the smug suburban gentility of that word refined? You’re left with the unsettling implication that the acceptability of allowing a naughty word to cross one’s lips depends, in part, on how thick they are.

Where does Professor Nunberg find this remarkably ugly implication?  He seems to find it in Parker’s telling of the story of the elevator ride.  Quoting key bits of the story, he comments:

The race and class of the woman and her companion weren’t specified, but readers might have been able to divine those attributes from the particular word Parker chose to report (or was that the only vulgarity the woman used?), helped along by the setting at Broadway and 168th Street and the mentions of the separated father and in particular of the young man’s “baggy drawers,” which presumably were intended to convey some relevant information. (If it had been an upper-middle-class white woman screaming “motherfucker” at a phat-pantsed white preppie, communicative cooperativeness would have obliged Parker to mention that fact lest the reader draw the wrong conclusions.)

None of the markers Professor Nunberg mentions in this paragraph is at all strongly correlated with race and class in New York City in 2011, as commenters on the post pointed out.  Your humble correspondent mentioned a couple of items showing that, while “Motherfucker” may have originated among African Americans in the early twentieth century, it has been in general use among whites and others for decades.  Professor Nunberg himself added to this list, strengthening my point (perhaps inadvertently.)  Another commenter pointed out that Broadway and 168th is in the middle of Spanish Harlem, so that if that location tells us anything about the woman’s ethnicity it would suggest either Puerto Rican or Dominican heritage.  Still others have pointed out that New York Presbyterian has more than one Manhattan location.  One might also mention that Manhattan is rather a compact place, so a wide variety of ethnicities may be found in any of its hospitals.  In the column, it is quite clear that “the “[mention] of the separated father” was “intended convey some relevant information,” and it is also clear what that information is.  It is when the woman in the elevator mentions the man’s father that it becomes clear that she is his mother, and so it is when Parker quotes that line that she provides the punchline about the woman’s use of “motherfucker.”  “Baggy drawers” or “phat pants,” like the use of “motherfucker” as an all-purpose obscenity, likely originated among African Americans and doubtless once was seen almost exclusively in African American communities, but one needn’t spend much time among young American whites to see that those days are long gone.

I appended many comments to this thread.  Here are links to all of them, in the admittedly unlikely case that you are interested: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8.  I’ll copy the last one, because in it I finally got around to saying what I’d been trying to say all along:

@Daniel: 1. “This post doesn’t really need any more comments, but”- Yes, I sympathize. It’s as hard to stop as it is to stop eating a salty snack. An angry, angry salty snack.

2. “”drawers,” which I definitely associate with AAVE.” The structure of this debate seems to be, S1: Parker reports (item.) I associate (item) with African Americans. Therefore, Parker wants her readers to associate the people she is denouncing with African Americans.” In reply, S2: “I don’t associate (item) with African Americans.”

The least involved premises we can add to S1’s assertions to make them into a logically valid argument would surely be “I am the sort of reader Parker had in mind when she wrote her column, and she should have known that I would associate (item) with African Americans.” In the absence of any data about what Parker’s readers think of when they think of these various items or about what she has reason to expect from her readers, we have no reason to suppose that these premises are true.

3. “Rhetorically, that is clearly implying that the British lady did not have context or delivery issues.” Let’s remember the context and delivery Parker describes in her opening vignette. She was on an elevator, which is to say, in a confined space. A person entirely unknown to her joined her and several others in that confined space. For a few moments, this unknown person shouted obscenities. Anyone might feel uncomfortable in that situation.

By contrast, Parker met the British lady (if British and lady she in fact was***) in a situation where she was free to move about. Parker and this second person were introduced and participated in a conversation. In the course of that conversation, the second person used a word that often classified as objectionable. Parker did not object to it. In fact, she made a little joke to forestall objections.

What, then, is the simplest explanation of the difference between Parker’s response to the two situations? Is it that person 1 was of a different ethnicity than person 2, and that Parker is hostile to the ethnic group person 1 represents and friendly towards the ethnic group person 2 represents? Or is it that she would rather engage in a conversation at a social event with someone who clearly poses no threat to her than be trapped in an elevator with an angry stranger?

Granted, Professor Nunberg does make a nod in the original post to  “at least five contexutal parameters that explain why the public harangues of the elevator expletiviste were obnoxious and offensive in a way that the English (one assumes) woman’s wasn’t.”  His remarks before and after that, accusing Parker of “nudge-nudge allusions to race and ethnicity… the way people intimate someone’s Jewishness by saying they’re ‘very New York'” and of implying “that the acceptability of allowing a naughty word to cross one’s lips depends, in part, on how thick they are” does not leave much opportunity to put serious weight on these contextual parameters.

I’ll quote a bit from my second-to-last comment as well, since in it I brought up the points I’m making here about charity.  In particular, I mention that a listener who is charitable to a speaker in one way may have to think ill of that speaker in another way:

@Peggy: “Keith M Ellis: “The whole point of dog-whistle racism is its deniability.” The whole point of accusations of dog-whistle racism is their unfalsifiability.” That’s going a bit far, surely. One ought to be charitable to people with whom one disagrees; one form of charity is to assume that when a logically defective argument can be made valid by the addition of an unspoken premise, the speaker has omitted the simplest possible premise that can achieve that result. So, suppose I ask you “Are the sidewalks wet?” and you reply, “They must be- it’s raining.” You’ve then made an argument that could be presented thus: (Premise) It’s raining. (Conclusion) The sidewalks are wet. By itself, this argument is invalid. The simplest way to make it valid is to add, as a second premise, “If it’s raining, the sidewalks are wet.” It would be an uncharitable listener who refused to make so small a cognitive leap in the course of a conversation.

Likewise, if one were to encounter an invalid argument that could most readily be made logically valid by the addition of a racist idea as an additional premise, it would be charitable to consider the possibility that the person making the argument has simply omitted that premise. I could mention some newspaper columnists who in fact do precisely that on a regular basis.

I’d extend that maxim of charity beyond the logical structure of arguments to the emotional response people exhibit to various stimuli. If, for example, Parker were usually happy when she was required to share a confined space with white people repeatedly shouting obscenities, but unhappy when an African American did the same thing, and she spoke as if no explanation was necessary for this difference in reaction, then charity to Parker would warrant the assumption that she was right, that the reason for the difference was in fact so simple that anyone could find it without an explanation. Charity to such a speaker might lead us to suspect the speaker of race prejudice.

Again, the column under consideration obviously does not meet this description. However, it is far from rare for people to exhibit emotional reactions to stories about misbehavior among African Americans that are not only grossly disproportional to the reactions the same people exhibit when they have heard similar stories about people of other ethnic backgrounds, but which also kick in long before any evidence is presented showing that the stories are even true. When that happens, it is neither irresponsible nor unfalsifiable to claim that racism is at work.

The more I thought about this exchange, the stranger it seemed to me that someone as learned as Professor Nunberg could take Parker to task for seeing a threat in a situation where she was confined in an elevator with a stranger.  Granted, the idea that this represented a threat to civility in general is a bit underargued, but once one describes the situation it is hard to see what need there is to attribute Parker’s anger to racial prejudice.  Yet shortly after, I noticed a news item describing an equally distinguished academic replicating Professor Nunberg’s behavior with some precision.

Evidently there is a woman named Rebeca Watson who writes a blog that is popular among atheists and other irreligious folk.  In June, Watson attended a conference at which her fans were well represented.  Very late on one of the nights of this conference, Watson found herself alone in an elevator with one of these fans, a man who made an awkward pass at her.  Watson declined the man’s offer, and said on her blog that it made her uncomfortable.  She gave it as an example of the wrong way for a man to approach a woman.

That, one would think, would be that.  Were one to think so, one would be reckoning without Richard Dawkins.  Professor Dawkins took it upon himself to post the following, as comment #75 in a thread on P. Z. Myers’ blog:

Dear Muslima

Stop whining, will you. Yes, yes, I know you had your genitals mutilated with a razor blade, and . . . yawn . . . don’t tell me yet again, I know you aren’t allowed to drive a car, and you can’t leave the house without a male relative, and your husband is allowed to beat you, and you’ll be stoned to death if you commit adultery. But stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with.

Only this week I heard of one, she calls herself Skep”chick”, and do you know what happened to her? A man in a hotel elevator invited her back to his room for coffee. I am not exaggerating. He really did. He invited her back to his room for coffee. Of course she said no, and of course he didn’t lay a finger on her, but even so . . .

And you, Muslima, think you have misogyny to complain about! For goodness sake grow up, or at least grow a thicker skin.


First, I would point out that Professor Dawkins has far more demands on his time than I do, so the fact that he would enter such a discussion shows that he uses his time even more foolishly than I do. In fact, even before the rise of the internet, Dawkins used to send unsolicited mail to people containing precisely these sorts of gratuitous insults.  Some years ago, I read a magazine profile of a Harvard graduate who became a spokesman for Creationism.  One day he opened his mail to find a letter from Richard Dawkins, whom he had never met, telling him that he was either an idiot or a villain, more likely a villain.  I can’t recall the man’s name, since I’d never heard of him before or since.  But for some reason Richard Dawkins wanted to send him hate mail.

Second, if Dawkins were as obscure a figure as am I, his remark would have been forgotten the moment comment #83 appeared in the same thread, from “Forbidden Snowflake”:

Dear Richard,

What right have you to bemoan the teaching of creationism in your country while people are dying of malaria in West Africa?
Seriously, this “you have no right to complain about your problems as long as there are bigger problems somewhere in the Universe” is nothing but a silencing tactic.

But of course Professor Dawkins is world-famous.  And he tried to defend his remark, making it much worse, and again, making it still worse.  So, there’s been a great deal of controversy.

Professor Dawkins’ invocation of Muslim women who live in countries where genital mutilation is practiced and severe form of Islamic law obtain might be expected to trigger anger from readers who identify with Rebecca Watson and assume that the professor is sharing information which he assumes to be relevant.  If one were charitable to him, assuming that he was so competent a communicator that the relevance of the information to Watson’s post is likely easy to find, the premise one might supply would be that Watson is self-centered and unconcerned with the sufferings of such women.

Unsurprisingly, Watson’s defenders have responded in kind.  Gawker quotes blogger Jen McCreight:

[It] makes me want to cry a little when you live up to the stereotype of a well-off, 70 year old, white, British, ivory tower academic. But let me spell it out for you instead of just getting mad (though I’ll do that too):

Words matter. You don’t get that because you’ve never been called a cunt, a faggot, a nigger, a kike. You don’t have people constantly explaining that you’re subhuman, or have the intellect of an animal. You don’t have people saying you shouldn’t have rights. You don’t have people constantly sexually harassing you. You don’t live in fear of rape, knowing that one wrong misinterpretation of a couple words could lead down that road.

Gawker quotes Watson’s expansion on McCreight’s remarks, then asking: “Can it really be that Dawkins has never been exposed to insults as odious as the ones mentioned by Ms. McCreight? As a jump-starter of the modern atheist revival, doesn’t Dawkins probably get a lot more threatening hate mail than all of his critics combined?” Considering that he’s a man who lives in the UK, I’d be willing to stake any amount of money on the proposition that Professor Dawkins has been called a “cunt” quite a few times  in his life, and considering the amount of hate mail he gets I suspect that he’s been on the receiving end of the other words and claims frequently as well.  Of course, words that have an association with a specific group wouldn’t have the same force when applied to someone outside that group, so Professor Dawkins is no contender for the title of Most Aggrieved.  McCreight’s choice of words is still unfortunate, however.

At any rate, surely this whole matter calls for charitable reading.  Only by dint of a most uncharitable reading of Watson’s original remarks could Professor Dawkins have thought it was appropriate to come at her in the way he did.  A charitable reading of Dawkins’ words would not leave him looking at all good, but might have kept his critics from responding in anger when pity would have been not only more suited to the quality of his thought in this matter, but also more likely to inspire in him some feeling of embarrassment.

*Hairless stick figures in xkcd often turn out to be male, hairless ones female.  Also, author Randall Munroe uses the first person singular to refer to Hairless in this strip, so I’m assuming it represents him.

**Some early examples of these studies are mentioned in Mary Louise Pratt, “Ideology and Speech Act Theory,” Poetics Today, vol. 7 no 1 (1986,) pages 64-65.

***She in fact was.  I’d forgotten the relevant bit of Parker’s original column and was distracted by a side discussion in the thread about other properties of the tea party guest.

Before Babel?

The Tower of Babel, by M. C. Esher

Fotb Maggie Jochild has reminded us of a study that was published in Science in April and publicized in The New York Times.  Biologist Quentin D. Atkinson applied mass comparison methods familiar in genetic research to the analysis of phonemes, the sounds that languages use to distinguish one word from another.  If a geneticist found the same pattens in a set of single-nucleotide polymorphisms that Atkinson found in the phonemes of the world’s languages, that geneticist would likely conclude that the set represented descent from a single common ancestor.  So, Atkinson suggests that all languages known to us, both those currently spoken as mother tongues and ancient languages known to us only through writings, descend from a language spoken in Africa tens of thousands of years ago.

When Atkinson’s paper appeared, it attracted strong criticism from some of our favorite writers.  To mention only the two posts about it that appeared on the incomparable Language Log, Mark Liberman analyzed Atkinson’s methodology, and Sarah Thomason reproduced a letter that anthropologists Ives Goddard and Bruno Frohlich sent to Science, but which that journal refused to publish.  Professor Liberman is lightly skeptical of Atkinson’s methods, but optimistic that his conclusions might prove true, while Professors Goddard, Frohlich, and Thomason express more severe reservations.

For my part, I’ve often wondered how many languages were spoken when language was first spoken.  For various reasons, it would be interesting if the idea of  “a language” were familiar to the first generations of language speakers.    The New York Times article says that Atkinson’s work “implies, though does not prove, that modern language originated only once, an issue of considerable controversy among linguists.”

I don’t think it does imply that, actually.  Even if it were proven that all languages available to us for study shared a common ancestor, it would not thereby be proven that “language originated only once.”  That language may well have been one of many languages spoken at the time, and may well have been descended from other languages spoken many millennia earlier.  Consider the languages of ancient Italy.  Latin is the ancestor of many languages spoken around the world today; the dozens of other languages that flourished on the peninsula before the rise of Rome have left no descendants.  If it weren’t for the written evidence that has come down to us from antiquity, we might be tempted to conclude that language originated in Italy only once, and in Latium.  Extending the processes that singled Latin out as the only Italian language of the mid-first millennium BC to leave descendants back another 50,000 years to a time when all of our ancestors may still have lived in Africa, we can see that they may well have left only one language spoken at that period with descendants, even if at the time it had thousands of contemporaries.

Indeed, that might have happened even if that hypothetical mother tongue had not stood out among its contemporaries.   To resume for a moment the parallel with Latin, before the late fifth century BC it would have been a rare observer who would have guessed that varieties of that language would grow into languages that would continue to be spoken for thousands of years after the language of the far wealthier and more powerful Etruscans had died without issue.  Going back further, the people who spoke the language that was the common ancestor of the Anatolian and Indo-European language families probably lived sometime around the year 4000 BC.  They were likely a rather scruffy group of nomads who lived in some of the less desirable corners of the Black Sea coast, what Moe the Bartender would no doubt call “one of them loser countries.” *    Even the early Romans would have seemed impressive set against them.  Yet something like half the people in the world now speak one or another of the hundreds of languages that descend from theirs.  If such an undistinguished group can launch a language that crowds out so many of its contemporaries over a period of 6,000 years, surely there is little we can say about the career in the world of a language that is likely 1o times that old.


Holiday season joke threads

Recently, two of my favorite blogs have featured comment threads that turned into lists of silly jokes.  On her blog, Alison Bechdel promoted some prints by Diane diMassa; as one of the prints shows a person holding up a sign with the word “fuck” written on it, many commenters shared jokes involving that word.  I posted a comment which I immediately regretted, realizing that it was terribly depressing; to my great relief, subsequent commenters not only refused to let me spoil the fun, but even turned it into an opportunity for more merriment.

At Language Log, a post looks at a comic strip in which a character can’t understand why the Fire Department won’t give her fire.  She’s also disappointed when the home and garden store will sell her neither a home nor a garden.  The comment thread starts with jokes of the same type (why do we park in the driveway, but drive on a parkway?” etc,) then moves on to other topics.  Here’s an observation about life in the USA that’s worthy of any standup comic you can name.    Fortunately, I avoided playing the role of Captain Bringdown there, although I did offer a non-funny remark about a sad book.

Acyrologia in the news

Yesterday, Language Log posted this cartoon.  Click on the image to see it in full size on the cartoonist’s site:

The poster, Professor Arnold Zwicky, at first remarked that he hadn’t seen the word “acyrologiaphobia” before; he then updated the post with the cartoonist’s explanation that “Acyrologia… seems be more or less synonymous with malapropism.”  So I googled “acyrologia,” and found this nifty little page explaining the word and its uses.  The page is part of Silvae Rhetoricae, an online reference for students of rhetoric maintained by Professor Gideon Burton of the Brigham Young University.