Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Ramblin' Bloggin' and Drinkin' Rhubarb Soda

This blog post is a reaction to three to things (a) a focused and interesting conversation I had this morning with an English student (b) Mr. Taleb's "philosophical note" #136 which comes off a little bit rambly and (c) an extremely tart and sour rhubarb soda from Eataly.

Quick summary: Mr. Taleb finds economists unethical and I wonder to what extent this variety and degree of ignorance is at all related to the destructive powers of grammarians and English educators.

How did this all come up today? Listening to Mr. Obama talk to some folks at UW-Madison on NPR with my English student, he said 'askin' instead of 'asking.' My English student and I talked about this and a few related issues.

The issue I'm talking about here is this: whenever people try to comment on this phenomenon-educated individuals!-they reveal a great deal of ignorance. Here is a very beautiful old blog post from Mark Lieberman at Language Log addressing this.

Mark Lieberman links to Geoffrey Pullums not-unrelated discussion of passive voice and its misunderstandings. Basically, I think the world needs some kind of gamechanging "Blackswan" of grammar for adults. I could be the GrammarBlackswan. Why didn't they ask for my ID when I purchased my rhubarb soda?
It's not the slightest bit unusual for educated people who are excellent writers to be unable to state grammatical generalizations correctly. And as Mark recently wrote here, "It's partly our fault because we've allowed the educational system to turn out PhDs who think and write like this... We've come a long way since grammar, rhetoric and logic were viewed as the trivial foundations for any other sort of education." Sunk a long way, he could have said.

Grammar is hardly taught at all these days. Almost everything most educated Americans believe about English grammar is wrong, and hardly anyone even controls a system of grammatical terminology that makes any sense. It is to at least some extent the fault of my profession. We theoretical linguists do not generally deign to do applied analysis of discourse or propaganda ourselves, or assist in it; and we do so little teaching of basic grammar of relevant kinds to a broad audience that the prevailing conception of grammar in the English-speaking world has hardly changed in a hundred and fifty years. It is perfectly sensible to attempt to discern psychological states of an author (like refusal to accept responsibility) from examining the use of particular kinds of grammatical construction in a text; but it generally gets done by people who do not have a sufficient grasp of grammar to permit the analysis they seek to understake. You can hardly blame them. It isn't like they're forgetting things that other people know. It just isn't true that everybody with an advanced degree will have had at least one coherent course on English grammar. Things are likely to stay this way until grammar teaching changes, or textual analysis with writers on politics and society is done in collaboration with grammarians .
Comments on these issues are welcome.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Gold is going to asymptote!

The theme of this blog is quickly becoming 'crises' which is the correct spelling for the plural of 'crisis.' The first post came with the Icelandic volcano, next came the BP Oil deluge-which is never going to end-and so I didn't make a post about it.

Now we may have a new crisis to talk about.

This morning at 9:35am, at Madison and 51st, I heard 3 dudes talking and one said:
'Gold is going up. It is about to straight line. Gold is going to asymptote.'

I immediately thought three things:
a) Holycrap, that can't be good.
B) noun--> verb conversion is quite productive in English.
C) What do the parts of this word mean in Greek: a-sym-pipto/tein/?

The purpose of this blog is to answer these three questions in this order.

A) Is gold in fact is about to asymptote? Apparently, maybe says Dr. Doom
And Kitco, here.

B) Verb conversion is a very common and productive process in English. To verb a word is easy in English. I think Steven Pinker describes this with humor in one of this books. Wikipedia.

C) Let's handle this third question GRE fashion. This one is for you, Tony! In English, there are three negative, or sometimes called privative prefixes, which all happen to share the same origin [Proto-Indo-European], and so are called cognate, since they were 'born' together.'
'a-' from Greek, ex: apathetic
'un-' in West Germanic, ex: unreal
'in-' in Latin, ex: infelicitous.
One can say a lot about this and the book ' English Vocab Elements' does so, as does, 'Wordly Wise.'

Getting back to the Greek prefix, 'a-' can sometimes be spelled 'an-' before vowels and English letter 'h' as in ex: anarchy, anhydrous, anaerobic. Contrast this with the Greek prefix "ana-" which means " again, for a second time, back" as in ex: anachronism, anabolic, analog. Do not get 'a-/an-' and 'ana-' confused! If you look at GRE vocab questions, you can sometimes easily select the only correct answer if you know this fact face and one other rule. Ask yourself, is the correct answer something that means 'to not do X' or 'to do X again?' The one other thing you need to know are the spelling rules (also called, "morpho-phonological processes"- I too can sound like I know what I'm talking about when standing on a street corner! ) that target Latin/Greek roots and prefixes when they combine with either other Latin/Greek words, or English roots.

Let's move on to the next part; 'sym-' from Greek 'syn' was a preposition meaning 'with' and spelled with Greek letter upsilon. The last letter in this word, nu, changes before certain sounds ex: sympathy, symbology, syllogism.

There is a very good reason why English uses the letter 'y' to spell words that have a Greek letter upsilon. Latin used the 'ee Greek letter' to write the foreign-sounding letter 'upsilon!' English borrowed the Latin spelling of these Greek words! Hypo/hyper is another example of English 'y' spelling Greek letter upsilon.

Other interesting things happened with the letter 'y' later on after a Middle-English era sound change affecting 'y' and 'i' sounds; it was inserted as a replacement for 'i' in Latin words in English, ex: Pennsylvania. 'The biography of the English language' as well as Wikipedia talks all about this.

Latin students are frequently worried about the spelling of Latinate words in English. Unfortunately, I don't think 'Pennsylvania' is an SAT or even GRE word, but there is no reason it shouldn't be.

The last part of the word 'asymptote' is verbal adjective, ptotos, from pipto, piptein, meaning (drum roll) 'to crash and burn, in the shape of an 'L' or 'w.' Haha, Im kidding. Do you see the theme of this post yet?

'to fall down, to fall down violently upon, to fall short, etc'

The outlook is bleak, happy double dip recession!!