## How to irritate a linguist, Part 5: English irregular past-tense verb practice

You just stand there, silent–trying not to glare balefully, either at your new interlocutor or–more likely–at the back of your departing host.  This is a mistake.

You’re at a party, sipping a dark beer and minding your own business, when the host introduces you to another cheerful attendee.  Biggie, meet Zipf.  He’s a linguist. …and disappears.

You just stand there, silent–trying not to glare balefully, either at your new interlocutor or–more likely–at the back of your departing host.  This is a mistake.

Conditional probability is the likelihood of some event given some other event.  For example: the probability of the word barf being said is, in the absence of any other information, equal to the frequency of the word barf being said divided by the frequency of any word whatsoever being said.  For example: I went to the Sketch Engine web site, your home for fine linguistic corpora and the tools to search them with, and searched a collection of 15.7 billion words of English scraped from the Web in 2015 and found that the word barf occurred 0.12 times per million words.  In other words: in the absence of any other information about what’s being said, you can expect that you will run into the word barf once every 8 million words or so.

If dogs are being talked about, the situation changes.  If you look only in the vicinity of the word dog, then the frequency of barf is 2.41 times per million words.  In other words, when dogs are under discussion, you will run into the word barf every 415,000 words or so.   So: the probability of the word barf is 0.12, and the conditional probability of the word “barf” given that you have seen the word “dog” is 2.41.

An aside: it isn’t necessarily the case that having seen some word tells you anything about the probability of seeing another word.  For example, the probability of the word barf and the probability of the word barf given that you have seen the word the are probably equal.  When the probability of some event (say, seeing some word) and the probability of that event given some other event (say, having seen some other word) are equal, we say that they are conditionally independent.  When the probability of some event is not the same as the probability of that event given some other event, we say that they are conditionally dependent.

So, you’re at a party, sipping a dark beer and minding your own business, when the host introduces you to another cheerful attendee.  Biggie, meet Zipf.  He’s a linguist. …and disappears.  You just stand there, silent–trying not to glare balefully, either at your new interlocutor or–more likely–at the back of your departing host.  This is a mistake, for the following reason: when you just stand there silently, you let the other person establish the grounds of the conversation.  (Note that I’m assuming a party in the United States, where we find silence uncomfortable, and thus there will, indeed, be a conversation.)

Someone saying Wow–irregular verbs, huh?  Aren’t they weird?  …is equal to the frequency of wow–irregular verbs, huh?  Aren’t they weird?  …being said, divided by the frequency of anything whatsoever being said.  In other words: vanishingly small.  However, the probability of someone saying Wow–irregular verbs, huh?  Aren’t they weird? …given that you have just been introduced to someone as a linguist is not vanishingly small–it is much, much larger than vanishingly small.

Just to be sure that we’re all paying attention here:

1. Suppose that the probability of the word barf is not equal to the probability of the word barf given that the word dog has been said.  These two words are:
1. conditionally dependent
2. conditionally independent
2. Suppose that the probability of the word barf is equal to the probability of the word barf given that the word the has been said.  These two words are:
1. conditionally dependent
2. conditionally independent
3. The probability of someone saying Wow–irregular verbs, huh?  Aren’t they weird? is much higher if they have just been told that you are a linguist than the probability of someone saying Wow–irregular verbs, huh?  Aren’t they weird? …given no additional information.  Those two events are
1. conditionally dependent
2. conditionally independent

Answers: (1) conditionally dependent, (2) conditionally independent, (3) conditionally dependent.

What’s so irritating about this?  The answers to that question are probably as numerous as the number of linguists in the world (which is to say: not enormous, but not zero, either), but here are my top 5 explanations:

1. Your question is looking for a specific answer–yes, they sure are weird–but I do not, in fact, think that English irregular past-tense verbs are weird, so I feel pressured into lying, so fuck you.
2. Talking about what’s interesting about English irregular past-tense verbs (I said interesting, not weird) would require me finding a napkin and a pen with which to draw on it, and no one seems to carry pens anymore, so I would have to wander around the party like a bumbling idiot, breaking up innumerable conversations while I looked for one, plus I have facial hair, so I really need my napkin.
3. A reasonable linguist would suspect that if they engage with you on this question, then they’re going to find themselves in an annoying conversation with you about linguistic complexity, and that would really ruin their evening, which given that I was just sipping a dark beer and minding my own business seems pretty unfair.

English is the language of my profession, and I know an enormous number of non-native speakers who can read and write it close to perfectly.  But: drink a couple of beers at the Association for Computational Linguistics convention meet-and-greet, get into an animated conversation about the inability of Big Data to demonstrate causality, and anyone will start to trip over irregular forms.  If you’re speaking English, that’s probably mostly going to involve irregular past-tense verbs.  But: practice makes perfect better, so: let’s practice!

Today we’ll look at irregular past-tense verbs that follow a specific pattern.  In this pattern, a verb with the vowel [i] (International Phonetic Alphabet) in the present tense has the vowel [ε] in the past tense.  Examples:

• feed/fed
• meet/met

Notice that I’m grouping these verbs by pronunciation, not by spelling–our goal here is to help you develop spoken habits.  (Mécanisation–thanks, Phil d’Ange!)  The astute reader (OK, a linguist) might also have noticed that those verbs all end with one of the two English “alveolar oral stop consonants:” that is, with a or a d.  Other verbs that have the [i]-in-the-present-[ε]-in-the-past pattern may add a or a d:

• feel/felt
• creep/crept
• keep/kept
• kneel/knelt
• leave/left
• mean/meant
• leap/leapt (leaped is also possible)
• cleave/cleft (cleaved and clove are also possible)
• flee/fled
• sleep/slept
• sweep/swept
• weep/wept
• deal/dealt
• dream/dreamt (dreamed is also possible)
• plead/pled (pleaded is also possible, and I think common these days, at least in the US)

OK: practice time!  Here are some sentences that include past-tense verbs of the [i]-in-the-present-[ε]-in-the-past pattern.  Read them out loud, replacing the present-tense verb in parentheses with the past-tense form.  (In some of these examples, it’s actually a past participle that happens to have the same form as the past tense.)

All examples are from the New York Times story Trump and Putin have met five times.  What was said is a mysteryby Peter Baker, published January 15th, 2019.  I have edited some of them for clarity, e.g. by replacing they with Trump and Putin.

The first time that Trump and Putin (meet) was in Germany.

Each of the five times President Trump has (meet) with Mr. Putin since taking office, he has fueled suspicions about their relationship.

The unusually secretive way he has handled these meetings has (leave) many in his own administration guessing what happened and piqued the interest of investigators.

At the height of the campaign, his son, son-in-law and campaign chairman had (meet) at Trump Tower with Russians on the promise of obtaining dirt on Mrs. Clinton from the Russian government.

Their most famous meeting came on July 16, 2018, in Helsinki, where they talked for more than two hours accompanied only by interpreters.  The Kremlin later reported that the leaders reached important agreements, but American government officials were (leave) in the dark.  American intelligence agencies were (leave) to glean details about the meeting from surveillance of Russians who talked about it afterward.

The picture at the top of this post is an MRI of the vowel [i] being pronounced.  Source: I don’t remember, but if you care, I’ll look it up.  Enjoying the How to irritate a linguist series?  Here are the previous episodes.

## Juice Newton and the nature of semantics

There’s a theory that language has meaning by making assertions about the world that are either true, or false.  Juice Newton says otherwise.

How does language mean things?  One way of thinking about it:

1. There is a world, with things in it.
2. Language makes statements about those things.
3. Those statements are either true, or false.

To expand on (3): suppose that I say the sentence Zipf’s Law is an “empirical” law.  …then if and only if it is, in fact, the case that:

1. Such a thing as “Zipf’s Law” exists, and…
2. …it is, in fact, a “descriptive” law (i.e. one that provides an accurate description of some set of facts, as opposed to, say, explaining them, or making a prediction about some as-yet-unobserved condition…

…then the sentence has the “truth-value” of true, and it means (1) and (2).

Here’s the thing, though: a lot of language does not, in fact, assert things about the world.  Suppose that I say the following to you: call me Angel of the Morning.  I am not asserting anything—I’m taking the action of giving you an order.  If I say to you if we’re victims of the night, I won’t be blinded by the night, then I’m not talking about something in the world—rather, I’m performing the action of making a prediction.   Is it true?  Is it false?  That’s not a relevant question, if you think that language means things by making a statement about the state of the world.  If it has no “ontological status”—in other words, it does not, in fact, exist—then not only is it not meaningful to talk about whether or not it’s true, but it’s not even meaningful to talk about what it “means.”

Juice Newton’s beautiful Angel of the Morning suggests that this–I’ll call it the ontologist’s point of view–is all bullshit.  From a linguist’s perspective, what’s cool about it is that from the preceding point of view, almost the entire song has no “truth value,” one way or the other.   Here are the lyrics:

There’ll be no strings to bind your hands
Not if my love can’t bind your heart
There’s no need to take a stand
For it was I who chose to start
I see no need to take me home
I’m old enough to face the dawn

Just call me Angel of the Morning, angel
Just touch my cheek before you leave me, baby
Just call me Angel of the Morning, angel
Then slowly turn away from me

Maybe the sun’s light will be dim
And it won’t matter anyhow
If morning’s echo says we’ve sinned,
Well, it was what I wanted now…
And if we’re victims of the night
I won’t be blinded by the light

Just call me Angel of the Morning, angel
Just touch my cheek before you leave me, baby
Just call me Angel of the Morning, angel
Then slowly turn away
I won’t beg you to stay
With me

Just call me Angel of the Morning, angel
Just touch my cheek before you leave me, darling
Just call me Angel of the Morning, angel
Just touch my cheek before you leave me, darling

Why do I say that the ontologist’s point of view is, in this case, bullshit?  Let’s start with the observation that the majority of the song by far (22 lines out of 26, or 84.6% of the lines in the song) does not make statements about the world.  Which lines do make a statement about the world?  The following, and no others:

1. There’s no need to take a stand
2. For it was I who chose to start
3. I see no need to take me home
4. I’m old enough to face the dawn

Everything else in the song falls into the category of “utterances” (a technical term in linguistics—something that is said, basically) called irrealis.  Here’s how Wikipedia defines irrealis:

In linguistics, irrealis moods are the main set of grammatical moods that indicate that a certain situation or action is not known to have happened as the speaker is talking.  — Wikipedia

There are a lot of moods that qualify as irrealis—in fact, most of them.  Some examples that we see in Angel of the Morning:

• There’ll be no strings to bind your hands (future)
• Not if my love can’t bind your heart (hypothetical or presumptive)
• Just call me Angel of the Morning, angel (imperative)
• Just touch my cheek before you leave me, baby (imperative)
• Then slowly turn away from me (imperative)
• Maybe the sun’s light will be dim (dubitative)
• If morning’s echo says we’ve sinned… (hypothetical)
• Well, it was what I wanted now… (the only sentence in the song that I’m not sure about with respect to its irrealis versus realis status—looks like a conditional (irrealis), but if it’s intended to describe a current reality (implying regardless of what happens in the future, it is, at this time, what I want), then it’s realis)

So, you have a couple of choices here: (1) side with the ontologists and assert that most of the song (and, in fact, most of what you, personally, will say and hear today) is meaningless, or (2) abandon the assumption that language means things by referring to states of the world that are either true, or false.  Most of this song is devoid of ontological status, and the notion of having a “truth value” just doesn’t apply to the majority of this song, one way or the other.

Who you gonna side with here–the ontologists (represented here by me in asomewhat caricatural, but by no means entirely inaccurate, fashion), or Juice Newton?  Do I even need to ask??

• Q: Can linguists suck the joy out of anything?
• A: Yes.
• Q: Do linguists suck the beauty right the fuck out of language?
• A: Yes.
• Q: Am I a hopeless romantic?
• A: Apparently.
• Q: Why do I get divorced so often?
• A: I don’t know.

Note: Angel of the Morning was written not by Juice Newton, but by Chip Taylor.  It has been recorded numerous times–Juice Newton’s is “just” the one that you would remember if you were an American of my age.  No ontologists were harmed in the making of this blog–neither were any’s opinions requested.  Not that their opinions would be unwelcome, of course, for all that I disagree with their deeply politically conservative opinions.

## What Japan knows that the Western world doesn’t

It’s 2 AM and it’s been less than a week since the last time that I crossed an ocean, so I’m jet-lagged and sitting on the back porch having a cigarette.  There’s a full moon.  It’s warning me.

It’s 2 AM and it’s been less than a week since the last time that I crossed an ocean, so I’m jet-lagged and sitting on the back porch having a cigarette.  There’s a full moon.  It’s warning me.

I’ve written about man-eating rabbits beforeLe lapin anthropophage in French, el conejo antropófago in Spanish–we’re not talking about the adorable little Monty Python killer rabbit here.  We’re talking about rabbits with sharp, bloody fangs who eat people.  Yeah, I know–you’ve never seen a man-eating rabbit.  How do I know?  Because you’re still alive–if you ever see a man-eating rabbit, that’s the last thing you see.  You know how I know that the adorable little Monty Python killer rabbit is not a real, actual man-eating rabbit?  Because he let some of the humans get away.

Look up at the night sky and what do you see?  If you were born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, like I was, you see the Man in the Moon.  The Pacific Northwest, Russia, Germany, France–it’s all of a piece.  It’s an optical delusion that pervades Western artistic expression.  From music…

And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon

Little Boy Blue and the Man in the Moon

When you comin’ home, Dad?  I don’t know when,

But we’ll get together then, yeah–you know we’ll have a good time then.

Harry Chapin

…to the graphic arts…

…to the cinema…

…the Western world looks at the moon and sees…the face of a man.  In fact, the idea of the Man in the Moon is so embedded in Western culture that the moon is portrayed with a man’s face even when the moon is not full:

It’s 2 AM and it’s been less than a week since the last time that I crossed an ocean, so I’m jet-lagged and sitting on the back porch having a cigarette.  There’s a full moon.  I look around the yard: any telltale long ears sticking up out of the grass?  Is there the gleam of moonlight off of pointy white little fangs?

Japan: I think of it as the France of Asia.  France: I think of it as the Japan of Europe.  Culturally, the two countries share a lot: an obsession with aesthetics, with presentation, with formality and with formalism; and food…  Generalizing about individuals is usually a losing proposition, but cultures–yeah, you can generalize about cultures.  (That’s sorta their point, right?)  And if there is one thing that Japanese culture and French culture share, it is an obsession with food.

The great Japanese food movie: Tampopo.  If you’ve only watched one Japanese movie, it’s probably the one.  Cinephiles have Ran, of course, and The Seven Samurai; teenagers have (or once had) The Ring; but poll your friends and you’ll find that if they’ve only seen one Japanese movie, it was Tampopo.  It’s about food, and sex, and food, and heroism, and food, and love, and food, and America (yes, in a minute you’re going to see a Japanese truck-driving Western movie hero), and food, and work, and… well, food.  Everyone has seen Tampopo, or should, and if you’ve seen it–when you’ve seen it–you’ll have a favorite scene.

For many people, that scene is this comedic skit.  YouTube auto-completes it as tampopo choking scene:

The glutinous substance upon which the old man chokes is mochi.  You making it by pounding glutinous rice.  I especially love it when used to make o-manju–when in Japan, I conduct research on how long you can live on a diet consisting solely of its daifuku form, and coffee.

It’s 2 AM and it’s been less than a week since the last time that I crossed an ocean, so I’m jet-lagged and sitting on the back porch having a cigarette.  There’s a full moon.  I look at the rabbit in it.

In Western culture, you look at the moon and you see the Man in the Moon.  In Japan and China, you look at the moon and you see what’s really there.  In China, I understand that he’s pounding herbs.  In Japan: he’s pounding mochi.  As I said: mochi starts with sticky rice.  You pound it.  It becomes mochi.  Somebody makes o-manju out of it, and I eat it.  Artisanal manju in a fancy department store, 7-11 daifuku at midnight–it’s all good.  Great, even.  (Yes, there are 7-11s in Japan.  If it weren’t for 7-11 and their competitor Lawson’s, I would not survive.)

Yeah, I know that you’ve never seen a man-eating rabbit.  I mean, neither have I–if I had, I wouldn’t be alive and sitting on the back porch smoking a cigarette, would I?  But, the man-eating rabbits leave traces, like everything else.  Crossing the boulevard St-Michel the other day, I saw this sticker:

Here’s the thing: no, you’ve never seen a man-eating rabbit.  But, like everything else, they leave traces, and sometimes they do so deliberately.  Propaganda.  Man-eating rabbit propaganda.  Why suspect us, indeed.  (Fun, and little-known, fact: inter-annotator agreement, a fundamental measure of corpus linguistics, has its roots in the pre-WWII study of propaganda.  Check out Krippendorff’s book Content Analysis: An introduction to its methodology for the story.)  Why English-language man-eating rabbit propaganda in Paris?  I don’t know–possibly because the man-eating rabbits know that the boulevard St-Michel is infested with non-French-speaking tourists.  Possibly man-eating rabbits just have so much disdain for les valeurs républicains that they can’t be bothered to pick up a fucking dictionary.  Who can understand the thought processes of a man-eating rabbit (beyond their obvious nastiness)?

What Japan knows that the Western world doesn’t: it’s not a man in the moon–it’s a rabbit.  It’s a rabbit that is pounding mochi.

Japan has given the world some wonderful things.  Judo, the “gentle way,” with its philosophy of mutual benefit between humans as the best way forward.  (Yes, it is the opposite of stupid “America First” isolationism.)  Ramen, the noodle dish that surpasses any other known human food for its comfortingness, yumminess, and general ability to make the world feel like a good place.  (Yes: aligot is a strong competitor.)  And something that people are, in general, less aware of: the rabbit in the moon, that constant reminder that we must always, always, always be vigilant.  Vigilant of the man-eating rabbits.  Vigilant of zombies.  Vigilant of petulant man-babies who would sacrifice America on the altar of their own narcissism, pathetically weak ego, and financial profit.

It’s 2 AM and it’s been less than a week since the last time that I crossed an ocean, so I’m jet-lagged and sitting on the back porch having a cigarette.  There’s a full moon.  It’s warning me.  It’s warning you.  It’s warning all of us.

English notes: bare relative clauses

It is an unfortunate fact that in English, relative clauses can–and it sounds perfectly natural–appear without their relativizer.  What that means: a week since the last time that I crossed the ocean can also be said a week since the last time I crossed the ocean.  In the second case, the last time I crossed the ocean is known as a “bare” (basically, “unclothed”) relative clause.

Leaving out the relativizer (in this case, that) is totally natural in the spoken language, and as far as I know, it’s totally fine in the written language, too.  Not all thats can be omitted.  I think it has something to do with whether the relative is “restrictive” or “non-restrictive;” unfortunately, despite having a doctoral degree in linguistics, I’ve never quite grasped the difference between them, so I can’t say anything more on the subject.  Try this web page, and explain it to me if you can.

Bare relative clauses are totally English, but I suspect that they must be very difficult for non-native speakers who don’t yet have an excellent command of the language, so I try to avoid them in this blog.  Here I’ll give you bare and non-bare examples of relative clauses from this blog post, just to familiarize you with the issue:

Bare: It’s 2 AM and it’s been less than a week since the last time I crossed an ocean, so I’m jet-lagged and sitting on the back porch having a cigarette.  There’s a full moon.  It’s warning me.

Not bare (there must be a term for that): It’s 2 AM and it’s been less than a week since the last time that I crossed an ocean, so I’m jet-lagged and sitting on the back porch having a cigarette.  There’s a full moon.  It’s warning me.

Bare: You know how I know the adorable little Monty Python killer rabbit is not a real, actual man-eating rabbit?  Because he let some of the humans get away.

Not bare: You know how I know that the adorable little Monty Python killer rabbit is not a real, actual man-eating rabbit?  Because he let some of the humans get away.  (Note that this one is almost certainly not a restrictive/non-restrictive issue–the relative clause is not modifying a nominal group.)

Bare: And if there is one thing Japanese culture and French culture share, it is an obsession with food.

Not bare: And if there is one thing that Japanese culture and French culture share, it is an obsession with food.

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