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November 30, 2006

I ♥ Kukulkan

I just got back from seeing a preview of Apocalypto, after a lovely Linguistic Club pre-function. Mark Sicoli and I both talked a bit on what we knew of the Mayans, whom the movie is ostensibly about (all the actors speak Yukatek Mayan, and I have to say they do a great job of acting, and speaking).

Mark suggested (and I must say I agree with him now, after seeing the movie) that it was really about the Aztecs -- or rather, that it might just have made a little sense if it were about them, rather than the Mayans. But as it is, the Mayans ought to sue Touchstone.

The movie is a sort of stew with 900 years of MesoAmerican history and mythology slopped in, overly seasoned with special effects, and stirred vigorously. If Mel Gibson had made the Passion to the same formula, Jesus would have escaped from the cross, swum the Mediterranean, and wound up assassinating Julius Caesar and Hitler.

Lots of gratuitous violence (but we knew that already), cool settings, plenty of suspense and vicarious vengeance... but that ending (which I will not reveal here, though you'll wish I had if you see the movie) spoils everything. I've never before experienced a literal deus ex machina; literal deus, literal machina. Unbelievable.

Bottom line: Read the Popol Vuh and skip the movie.

Update: There's a nice article in Salon today by a Maya scholar (which I am not) that says roughly the same thing -- it's historically inaccurate and gets the culture totally wrong.

Posted by jlawler at 11:41 PM | Comments (0)

November 24, 2006

Chipotle Sweet Potatoes

Well, it's The Day After Thanksgiving, here in the US (I doubt that I have any readers outside the US, but it never hurts [_] to remind outselves that the Web is international (and anyone who'd like to specify the rule that deletes the subject [_] of the preceding infinitive clause is invited to submit their version)).

Anyway, I had a lovely Thanksgiving dinner with my old friends Anthony Aristar and Helen Aristar Dry, the co-moderators of the LINGUIST LIST, who live in Ann Arbor and who are usually so busy that their friends can only snatch a few moments with them. Since they're real linguists, they're great cooks, and the dinner was wonderful.

My own contribution to the pot-luck included a side dish that I'd like to recommend here, since it solves a problem faced by anybody (like me) who's become entranced with Chiles Chipotles en Adobo, namely what to do with the chiles remaining in the can.

Chiles chipotles (which are merely smoked chiles jalapeños, though it seems they only pick very hot ones to smoke) are so hot that no recipe I've ever seen for a family-sized group ever uses more than a 2 or 3, while there are always 5 or more chiles in any small (7 oz) can that I've been able to find in groceries.

The side dish I recommend is absolutely perfect for US Thanksgiving, but also for Christmas/Kwanzaa/Chanukah: Chipotle Sweet Potatoes.

It's originally from Alton Brown's Good Eats program, and can be found on the Food Channel. It's among the simplest recipes I've ever seen.

Here it is, in toto:

----------------- cut here -----------------

2 large sweet potatoes, peeled and cubed
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 whole canned chipotle pepper in adobo sauce, chopped
1 teaspoon adobo sauce from can of peppers
1/2 teaspoon salt

Put cubed potatoes into steamer basket and place steamer into a large pot of simmering water that is no closer than 2 inches from the bottom of the basket. Allow to steam for 20 minutes or until the potatoes are fork tender.

Add butter to potatoes and mash with potato masher. Add peppers, sauce, and salt and continue mashing to combine. Serve immediately.

----------------- cut here -----------------
I used 3 large sweet potatoes, 3 tbsp butter, and 2 chopped chiles chipotles (plus adobo to taste), and I'm here to tell you that:


Posted by jlawler at 03:56 PM | Comments (0)

November 19, 2006


I happen to be on the Linguistics Department's Undergraduate Committee (well, all right, not really just happen to be -- in fact, I would have thrown a hissy fit if I hadn't been put on that committee, since I'm very concerned with the migration of linguistics to the undergraduate curriculum, and eventually to the secondary and primary curricula -- but that's a matter for another post).

Anyway, last week all us faculty in Linguistics received an email invitation from Touchstone Pictures to a local screening of Mel Gibson's new flick Apocalypto, filmed in Yukatek Maya, the same way his previous blockbuster was filmed in Latin and Aramaic. Touchstone seems not to know the difference between language departments and a linguistic department, but never mind -- that's just another example of how linguistics is the best-kept secret in America.

I suggested to our Linguistics Club that this would make a terrific event, and received some enthusiastic support. So (¡ojalá!) if we get enough tickets, we'll have a short teach-in beforehand, and then troop over en masse to see Apocalypto a week after Thanksgiving. Sounds like fun. And even a bit of preference for those of us actually concerned with funny languages.

I did a little online research on various topics and compiled a Web page of resources that might be of interest to anyone seeing the film who's interested in the language, culture, and history of the Maya. There's plenty more, gods know, but this will certainly do for starts.


Posted by jlawler at 04:45 PM | Comments (1)

November 16, 2006

Read'em and weep

If it's true, as I often claim, that all real linguists are Oral Personalities, then this site may be hazardous to your health if you show any of the Seven Warning Signs of Incipient Linguistics. I've already had two people complain that they've injured themselves laughing at the stuff there.

I won't say anything more about it, but remember: You Have Been Warned.

(hat tip to Emily Birr)

Posted by jlawler at 10:35 AM | Comments (1)

Is, is

I just heard some talking head on NPR use the "is, is" construction again. That's a new (and rather irritating) piece of English syntax that reanalyzes pseudo-clefts and generates a spurious reduplication.

I suppose that, as a syntactician, I ought to greet such innovations in my native tongue with delight; but frankly this one irritates me even more than uses of intensifier so, or as far as.. without a bookend. Just getting curmudgeonly, I guess.

I hear it a lot on NPR, but mostly when I'm driving, it seems, so I can't write them down. Here are some examples collected last year [commas interpolated]:

(1) The difference is, is that it's not coming from the top. ('On the Media' 12-10-05)
(2) But the reality of it is, is that ... ('Marketplace' segment on 'Morning Edition' 11-25-05)
(3) The situation was, is that my mom died ... ('Smart Money' 11-6-05)
(4) The problem is, is that the traditional Haitian government ... ('All Things Considered' 11-25-05)

I've never encountered this in writing; it seems to be strictly oral, which is what you would expect for a nascent syntactic rule. I have a theory about how it developed -- i.e, I thought of an explanation, but I haven't made any attempt to search the literature, so I don't know if it's the same as or different from anybody else's explanation.

It seems to me that these come from the pseudo-cleft rule, or rather from a misunderstanding of the pseudo-cleft rule. You remember cleft and pseudo-cleft, right? As Fillmore
puts it, "Instances of cleavage have IT in front; instances of pseudo-cleavage have WHAT in front."

Any of the sentences above could have been pseudo-clefts with two is's in a row:

(1a) What the difference is is that it's not coming from the top.

This has one is isolated at the end of the What clause, before the trace formed by Wh-movement, followed immediately after the trace by a second is serving as the fulcrum of cleavage.

They could also have been simple uncleft sentences, with only one is:

(1b) The difference is that it's not coming from the top.

It seems to me that speakers that use the "is, is" construction re-interpret the double is as a constituent, a marker for some kind of cleavage (instead of a syntactic accident), and drop the What that is the real marker -- after all, it doesn't add any information to (1a), as (1b) shows. (I suppose someone who cared more than I do could use this as an argument against the reality of traces.)

Why keep the double is at all, then? For the same reason people use whom nowadays: to appear authoritative. I guess that's what irritates me about it.

Posted by jlawler at 09:58 AM | Comments (1)

November 11, 2006

The way to make a name in linguistics is to make a name in linguistics

I was reading some other linguistics blogs and found an interesting post from Noncompositional about names linguists (especially syntacticians) give to rules, phenomena, and papers.

Háj Ross is (quite correctly) blamed for many of the most egregious, but Robin Lakoff is -- as the post intimates, and as Háj will be among the first to agree -- the Onlie Begetter. Who can forget her

"The Logic of Politeness, or Minding Your P's and Q's"?
Not only a pun on logical notation, but also a takeoff on Grice at the same time, and both à propos her topic. Just brilliant.

Andy Rogers (always a nomenclatural extremist) went so far as to name the rule he wrote his dissertation about -- a strange species of Raising with certain verbs like seem and a complementizer like that copied instead of moved the downstairs Su, producing such sentences as

  1. Mary seems like she gets along with everybody.
-- as "Richard", on the principle that since all names are arbitrary he might as well name this one after Richard Nixon as anything else. (This was in the early 1970s, note.)

I'm guilty of a few of these, too, sometimes to excess (mea culpa, mea culpa, ...). The first few CLS papers I wrote were entitled

and then (I hang my head in shame) ...

Ah, youth. Ah, linguists.

Posted by jlawler at 09:35 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

November 10, 2006

First, I was born.

I've been on the net since 1982 and on the web since 1994. Now I've got a blog, courtesy of UM. Today I was talking to an old friend and former student who told me he posts practically everything he knows in some blog somewhere.

Sounds like a good idea to me. I've now entered that stage of life known technically as Old Farthood, and I'm getting interested in publishing more of what I know and believe and think and guess and wonder than is allowed by the usual academic routes.

Hence this blog. Dunno whether it'll work. But it might be fun. That's good enough.

Posted by jlawler at 07:51 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack