Category Archives: Morphology

Coffee Rant: Or Why Adjectives Matter

Some years ago, I found myself reading some article about the evils of Corporate America and amongst a crowd of folks who were railing against one of the members of the Economic Axis of Evil – Starbucks. Being the misanthropic curmudgeon I am, I’m usually on the side of anyone who takes an opportunity to “stick it to the Man,” regardless of which flavor of “the Man” that may be, but in this instance, I was perversely on the side of Howard Schultz and his mighty mochaccino monolith. I was also in the minority, which also appealed to my sense of curmudgeonliness [1] and there’s a good chance that I was hyped up on caffeine too. So here’s the response, unedited and expurgated.

So some folks think that Starbucks is “too corporate” and “bland?” So they prefer the small “mom-and-pop” local coffee houses that are supposedly unique and special.

Well I say “poppycock” to their smug, preachy elitism. Why should anyone listen to a bunch of aging, sandal-toed, tofu-eating, ex-hippies who are just mad because their “organic real coffee” stores barely makes enough to keep them in muesli? These are the air-headed boomers who wanted to change the world in the 60’s, failed miserably, then joined the very same corporate world they now despise, which in turn helped them earn the money to start up the pathetic, ersatz “authentic” java joints they now run.

Excuse me for pointing out the stunningly obvious to these self-styled entrepreneurs but they seem to forget that their success comes on the back of the “coffee culture” explosion that Starbucks was instrumental in fueling. Some 20 years ago, springing fifty cents for a cup of hot brown slop from the Micky D’s drive-through was about as much as folks were willing to pay and as sophisticated as their taste reached. Now the three-dollar offering made from quality freshly ground beans is not an unusual occurrence, and the kaftan-wearing, self-important arbiters of taste have no problem selling their own free-trade farmer-friendly Guatemalan dark roast sludge for prices just under the standard Starbucks price. Oh yeah, and sometimes, no matter how much these self-appointed guardians of coffee purity bleat, their stuff is crap. Just because you know Juan Gonzales from Colombia personally and have visited his small pueblo to spend time with his wife and children doesn’t mean his stuff is good. For every coffee place that sells good, drinkable java there are ten others that, like Hans Christian Anderson’s emperor, are wearing no clothes. They talk the talk, walk the walk, but churn our bland or burned buckets of semi-drinkable swill that makes four-hour-old gas station coffee seem like nectar.

So stop your whining, you bunch of goatee-coiffed, hemp-wearing, pot-headed, jelly-brains and come back and pontificate when YOU have a multi-million dollar international organization that’s having to make decision on this sort of scale. Otherwise, go stock up on some of those home-made $2.99 granola bars that take away the taste of your insipid brew.

I chose to share this because (a) I’m too idle at the moment to write a brand new post – or to at least finish ONE of the three “draft” posts languishing in WordPress – and (b) I thought it demonstrated how there are times when the excessive use of adjectives can be used to good effect. Although most writing guides recommend the spartan use of adjectives, sometimes it’s fun to let them loose and watch them cavort and gamble happily with an otherwise sleepy collection of nouns.

Notes
[1] I doubt that curmudgeonliness is likely to catch on, and a quick check with the Corpus of Contemporary American English shows only two uses of the word; once in 1997 and another in 2008. However, what is does illustrate is how to use the process of affixation can turn a concrete noun into an abstract. Here’s the route:

(a) curmudgeon (n) -> curmudgeonly (adj)
(b) curmudgeonly (adj) -> curmudgeonliness (n)

It’s possible to change a concrete noun to an abstract directly without the intermediate adjectification by using different suffixes e.g. boy (n) -> boyhood (n); friend (n) -> friendship (n); star (n) -> stardom (n).

And one last fun fact to slip into your next party conversation; sticking an extra “bit” (or morpheme) to a word that changes it from one part-of-speech to another is called derivational morphology, whereas if it stays as the same part-of-speech it’s called inflectional morphology. Curmudgeon to curmudgeonly is derivational;  sing to singing or sings is inflectional. Go ahead, nerd out with that!

ColorBrewer: Utilizing cartography software for color coding

It seems that I am getting a reputation for being a teensy-weensy bit doryphoric [1] and that may have some truth in it insofar as I hate – with a passion – the tendency for people to use the word “utilize” rather than “use” simply because the former sounds more erudite. It’s not, in fact, erudite; it’s just plain wrong. As I’ve said in previous posts, “utilize” means “to use something in a manner for which it was not intended.” So I can “use” a paper clip to hold a set of pages together; but I can “utilize” it to scoop wax out of my ears or stab a cocktail olive in my vodka martini (shaken, not stirred).

Colorado beetle

Doryphoric

So when I titled this post with “utilizing cartography software” I really do mean that and I’m not trying to sound clever by using a four-syllable word (utilizing) over the simpler two-syllable using. No siree, I say what I mean and I mean what I say: utilize. The software in question is online at ColorBrewer: Color Advice for Cartography and its original purpose was to help map makers choose colors that provide maximum contrast. Let’s create an example. Suppose you have a map of the US and you want to use colors to show the average temperatures as three data sets; below 50F, 51F-65F, and above 65F. You can use three colors in one of three different ways:

  • (a) Sequential: Three shades of a chosen color from light to dark to indicate low to high values. e.g. Sequential color
  • (b) Diverging: Three colors that split the data equally in terms of the difference between the colors, but with the mid-range being related to a degree of difference between the extremes. Divergent color coding
  • (c) Qualitative: Three colors that split the data into three distinct groups, such as apples/oranges/bananas or trains/boats/planes – or for the statisticians out there, any nominal level data. Color coding qualitative

For a map of temperature averages, you’d choose the sequential coding so as to show the degree of change. Here’s what such a map might look like:

Three data point colors

Three data point colors

Compare this with a version whereby we chose to have six data points rather than three i.e. less that 45F; 46F-50F; 51F-55F; 56F-60F; 60F-65F; above 65F.

Six data points colors

Six data points colors

What the software does that is interesting is that it automatically generates the colors such that they are split into “chromatic chunks” that are equally different. The lowest and highest color values for each map are the same but the shades of the intermediate colors are changed. If you were to choose a set of 10 data points, the software would split those up equally.

Of course, as the number of data points increases, the perceptual difference between them decreases i.e. it becomes harder to see a difference. This is one of the limitations of any color-coding system; the more data differentials you want to show, the less useful colors become. You then have to introduce another way of differentiating – such as shapes. So if you had 20 shades of gray, it’s hard to see difference, but with 20 shades of gray and squares, triangles, rectangles and circles, you now have only 5 color points for each shape.

One of the areas where color coding is used in Speech and Language Pathology is AAC and symbols. In the system of which I am an author [2] color coding is used to mark parts of speech. But suppose you were going to invent a new AAC system and wanted to work out a color coding scheme, how might you utilize the ColorBrewer website?

If you’re going to design your system using a syntactic approach (and I highly recommend you do that because that’s how language works!) you could first identify a color set for the traditional parts of speech; VERB, NOUN, ADJECTIVE, ADVERB, PRONOUN, CONJUNCTION, PREPOSITION, and INTERJECTION [3]. This looks suspiciously like a nominal data set, which corresponds to the Qualitative coding method mentioned at (c) above. So you go to the ColorBrewer site and take a look at the panel in the top left:

ColorBrewer Panel

ColorBrewer Panel

You can set the Number of data classes to 8, the Nature of your data to qualitative, and then pick yourself a color scheme. If you chose the one in the graphic above, you see the following set recommended:

Eight color data setFor the sake of completeness, here are all the other options:

ColorDataQualSet2You can now choose one of these sets knowing that the individual colors have been generated to optimize chromatic differences.

So let’s assume we go for that very first one that starts with the green with the HTML color code #7FC97F [4]. I’m going to suggest that we then use this for the VERB group and that any graphics related to verbs will be green. Now I can move to step 2 in the process.

Verbs can actually be graded in relation to morphological inflection. There are a limited number of endings; -s, -ing, -ed, and -en. Knowing this, I can go back to the ColorBrewer site and use the sequential setting to get a selection of possible greens. This time I changed the Number of data classes to 5 and the Nature of your data to Sequential. Here’s what then see as a suggested set of equally chromatically spaced greens:


ColorDataQualPanel2

This now gives me the option to code not just verbs but verb inflections, while chromatically signaling “verbiness” by green. Here’s a symbol set for walk and write that uses the sequential – or graded – color coding:

Color-coded symbols

Color-coded symbols

If you want an exercise in AAC system design, knowing that ADJECTIVES also inflect like verbs using two inflectional suffixes, -er and -est, you can try using the ColorBrewer to create color codes [5].

There are probably many other ways to utilize the site for generating color codes. For example, you might want to create colors for Place of Articulation when using pictures for artic/phonology work, and seeing as there are a discrete number of places, it should be easy enough. Why not grab yourself a coffee and hop on over the ColorBrewer now and play. But only use it if you’re creating a map. Please!

Notes
[1] A doryphore is defined by the OED as “A person who draws attention to the minor errors made by others, esp. in a pestering manner; a pedantic gadfly.” It comes from the Greek δορυϕόρος, which means “spear carrier,” and it was originally used in the US as a name for the Colorado beetle – a notable pest. This beetle was known as “the ten-striped spearman,” hence the allusion to a spear carrier.  To then take the noun and turn it into an adjective by adding the -ic suffix meaning “to have the nature of” was a piece of cake – and a great example of using affixation to change a word’s part of speech. As always, you leave a Speech Dudes’ post far smarter than you entered it!

[2] Way back in 1993 I was invited to join the Prentke Romich Company’s R&D department as one of a team of six who were tasked with developing what became the Unity language program. The same basic program is still used in PRC devices and the language structure has been maintained such that anyone who used it in 1996 could still use it in 2014 on the latest, greatest hardware. The vocabulary also uses color coding to mark out Parts-of-Speech but not exactly like I have suggested in this article. Maybe next time…?

[3] The notion of 8 Parts-of-Speech (POS) is common in language teaching but as with many aspects of English, it’s not 100% perfect. For example, words like the, a, and an can be categorized under Adjectives or added to a class of their own called Articles or – by adding a few more – Determiners. So you might see some sources talking about 9 Parts-of-Speech, and I like to treat these as separate from adjectives if only because they seem to behave significantly differently from a “typical” adjective. Another confounding factor is that some words can skip happily between the POS and create minor havoc; light is a great example of this. The take-away from this is that sometimes, words don’t always fit into neat little slots and you need to think about where best to put them and how best to teach them.

[4] In the world of web sites, colors are handled in code by giving them a value in hexadecimal numbers – that’s numbers using base 16 rather than the familiar base 10 of regular numbers. Black is #000000 and white is #FFFFFF. When you’re working on designing web pages, it’s sometimes useful to be able to tell a programmer that you want a specific color, and if you can give them the precise hex code – such as #FF0000 for red and #0000FF for blue – then it makes their job easier and you get exactly what you need. You can also something called RGB codes to described colors, based on the way in which the colors (R)ed, (G)reen and (B)lue are mixed on a screen. Purple, for example, is (128,0,128) and yellow is (255, 255, 0). Take a look at this Color Codes page for more details and the chance to play with a color picker.

[5] I suppose I should toss in a disclaimer here that I’m not suggesting that creating an AAC system is “simply” a matter of collecting a lot of pictures with colored outlines and then dropping them into a piece of technology. There is much more to it than that (ask me about navigation next time you see me at a conference) so consider this article just one slice of a huge pie.

Countdown to Christmas – Question 24: Christmas Eve!

OK folks, that’s it – there is no more! Our virtual advent calendar ends today, leaving you all to open that magical 25th door tomorrow, where – when I was a kid – you’d find a piece of Cadbury chocolate and a picture of the baby Jesus in a straw-lined trough.

So as we come to the end of our super-fabulous coffee-giveaway extravaganza, our last question is also about last things. Coming up right after this video of Steely Dan’s “The Last Mall” from their Everything Must Go album.

A syllable is usually defined a having three distinct segments; the ONSET, the NUCLEUS, and the… what?

ANSWER: Coda!

A few folks offered RIME (or RHYME) as the solution, and in fairness, we should acknowledge that this might be OK. However, when one talks about the three segments that have ONSET and NUCLEUS as the first two, the third is CODA. In the two-part description, one does indeed see ONSET and RIME, but the rime is defined as consisting of the NUCLEUS + CODA, or, in an open syllable, the CODE is absent. So, coda is what we wanted, which also fits in with the idea that this is the “end” of the contest – and coda means “end.”

Syllable structureLinks

The Syllable and the Foot from Macquarie University: nice overview.

Explore syllable structures across languages at the World Atlas of Language Structures online.

 

The Dudes Dissect “Closing the Gap” 2013: Day 2 – Of Speech and Sessions

Having looked at the vocabulary used in the Closing the Gap 2013 preconference sessions, it’s time to cast a lexical eye on the over 200 regular presentations that took place over two-and-a-half days. For most attendees, these are the “bread and butter” of the conference and choosing which to attend is a skill in of itself. It’s not uncommon [1] to have over ten sessions run concurrently, which means you’re only getting to attend a tenth of the conference!

So let’s take a look at the vocabulary used in the titles to all theses presentations to get a flavor of the topics on offer.

Conference Presentations: Titles

The total number of different words used in the session titles was 629 after adjusting for the top 50 words used in English [2]. As a minor deviation, kudos to all who used the word use correctly instead of the irritatingly misused utilize. Only one titled included utilizes – and it was used incorrectly; the rest got it right! For those who are unsure about use versus utilize, the simple rule is to use use and forget about utilize. The less simple rule is to remember that utilize means “to use something in a way in which it was never intended.” So, you use a pencil for drawing while you utilize it for removing wax from your ear; you use an iPad to run an application while you utilize it as a chopping board for vegetables; and you use a hammer to pound nails but utilize it to remove teeth. Diversion over.

Top 20 Most Frequent Words in Titles

Top 20 Most Frequent Words in Titles

Top 20 Most Frequent Words in Titles

No prizes for guessing that the hot topic is using iPad technology in AAC. Your best bet for a 10-word title for next year’s conference is;

How your students  use/access iPad AAC apps as assistive technology

This includes the top 10 of those top 20 words so your chances of getting accepted are high.

Conference Presentations: Content Words

The total word count for the session descriptions text is 2,532 different words (excluding the Stop List), which is a sizable number to play with. And when I say “different words,” I mean that I am basically counting any text string that is different from another as a “word.” So I count use, uses, used, and using as four words, and iPad and iPads as two. A more structured analysis would take such groups and count them as one “item” – or what we call a LEMMA. We’d then have a lemma of <USE> to represent all the different forms of use, which lets us treat use/used/uses/using as one “word” that changes its form depending on the environment in which it is sitting [3]

Top 50 Words By Frequency in Session Content

Top 50 Words By Frequency

A 2,3oo-word graphic would be rather large so I opted to illustrate the top 50 most frequently used words. As you can see, the top words seem to be the same as those in the titles, which suggests that on balance, presenters have done a good job overall in summarizing their presentation contents when creating their titles – something that is actually the strategy you should use.

Keywords in Content

Finally, let’s take a look at the keywords in the session content descriptions. Remember, the keywords are those that appear in a piece of text with a frequency much higher than you would expect in relation to the norm.

Top 10 words by Keyness score

Top 20 words by Keyness score

Top of our list here are apps with the iPad coming in at three. Fortunately this fetish for technology is tempered by the inclusion in our top 20 of words like strategies, learn, how, and skills, all critical parts of developing success in AAC that are extra to the machinery. It’s good to think that folks are remembering that how we teach the use of tools is far, far more important than obsessing over the tools themselves.

Coming next… The Dudes Dissect Closing the Gap: Day 3 – Of Content and Commerce. In which the Dudes look at the marketing blurbs of the Closing the Gap exhibitors to discover what the “hot button” words intended to make you want to buy!

Notes
[1] WordPress’s spell and grammar checker flagged the phrase “it’s not uncommon” as a double negative and told me that I should change it because, “Two negatives in a sentence cancel each other out. Sadly, this fact is not always obvious to your reader. Try rewriting your sentence to emphasize the positive.” Well, although I generally agree that you shouldn’t use no double negatives, the phrase “not uncommon” felt to me to be perfectly OK and not at all unusual. I therefore took a look at the Corpus of Contemporary American English and found that “it’s not uncommon” occurs 313 times while “it’s common” scores 392. This is as near to 50/50 as you get so I suggest to the nice people at WordPress that “it’s not uncommon” is actually quite common and thus quite acceptable – despite it being a technical double negative.

[2] For the curious among you, here are the contents of the Stop List I have been using, which is based on the top 50 most frequently used words in the British National Corpus (BNC): THE, OF, AND, TO, A, IN, THAT, IS, IT, FOR, WAS, ON, I, WITH, AS, BE, HE, YOU, AT, BY, ARE, THIS, HAVE, BUT, NOT, FROM, HAD, HIS, THEY, OR, WHICH, AN, SHE, WERE, HER, ONE, WE, THERE, ALL, BEEN, THEIR, IF, HAS, WILL, SO, NO, WOULD, WHAT, UP, CAN. This is pretty much the same as the top 50 for the Corpus of Contemporary American English, except that the latter includes the words about, do, and said instead of the BNC’s one, so, and their. Statistically, this isn’t significant so I suggest you don’t go losing any sleep over it.

[3] When you create and use lemmas, you also have to take into account that words can have multiple meanings and cross boundaries. In the example of use/used/uses/using, clearly we’re talking about a verb. But when we talk about a user and several users, we are now talking about nouns. So, we don’t have one lemma <USE> for use/used/user/users/uses/using but two lemmas <use(v)> and <use(n)> to mark this difference. It gets even more complicated when you have strings such as lights, which can be a verb in “He lights candles at Christmas” but a noun in “He turns on the lights when it’s dark.” When you do a corpus analysis of text strings, these sort of things are a bugger!

Tmesis: A Whole Nother Word to Use!

I’m guessing that Speech Pathologists and Linguists develop, over the years, an ear for the odd. By that, I mean we learn to hear quirky things that pass most people by. One of these is the phrase, “But that’s a whole nother thing.” Really? Nother? Is that even a word?

It’s clear that the intent here is to use the words another and whole in a similar way as phrases like “That’s a whole different ballgame” or “That’s another thing altogether,” but somehow the words get mixed up and whole gets wedged into the word another and out pops “a whole nother.”

Because this is an educational site and we hope that folks always leave us feeling that they’ve learned something, there is a name for this phenomenon of slapping a word smack bang into the middle of another; tmesis. You may also like to know that is comes from the Greek τμῆσις meaning “a cutting,” which described how one word is cut into two pieces and a second slotted in.

tmesisTmesis is more typically seen in the realm of profanity. Only last night on the new EsquireTV channel, one of the chefs competing in an edition of the show, “Knife Fight,” said that she was feeling “fan-fucking-tastic” that she’d won. Well, the fucking was bleeped out but you didn’t have to be a skilled lip reader to know what she said. In the UK, something can be “un-bloody-likely” or “abso-bloody-lutely un-fucking-believable.” This insertion of an expletive even has a name; expletive infixation. [1]

So let’s dig a little deeper here. An infix is a type of affix that appears in the middle of a word, and an affix is a morpheme that can be attached to a word to form a new word. In English, we have prefixes that go before and word, and suffixes that go after. Here are a few examples;

Prefixes: un-, dis-, pre-
unlikely, unbelievable, unhappy, unsure
disable, disappear, disarmed, dishonest
prepaid, prenuptial, prelinguistic, prefix

Suffixes: -ing, -ly, -er
meeting, running, drinking, sleeping
happily, sadly, unhappily, controversially
happier, sadder, reader, editor

Sometimes the prefixes and suffixes may change a little depending on what other letters are around. For example, in- and im- are the same prefix but you chose in- in front of words made with the tongue just behind the teeth (dental) and im- if the word that follows is made with the lips (bilabial). [2] The same thing happens with the em- and en- prefixes: you empower someone (the letter “p” in power is made with the lips, and you encircle something (the letter “c” in circle is made with the tongue just behind the teeth).

This little foray into tmesis and prefixes leads us back to the “whole nother” issue, and a short trip in an etymological time machine will show us something very interesting about what’s happening here.

Many years ago, in the times of Chaucer, the word another was, in fact, two words; either an + other or – surprise! – a + nother. During the 14th century, the word nother was used as a variant of other and appeared with the article a. In his 1374 work, Anelida and Arcite, Chaucer wrote;

And sawe a noþere ladye proude and nuwe

Notice the split form here – a and nother sitting happily side by side. However, by Shakespeare’s time, the words had fused into another. In Macbeth, Act III, scene I, we see:

And I another
So weary with disasters, tugg’d with fortune,
That I would set my life on any chance,
To mend it, or be rid on ‘t.

He does at times use a split version, but as “an other” and not “a nother.” And by the 18th and 19th centuries, both “an other” and “a nother” appear to have disappeared altogether, with another being the form of choice for writers. Thus, we started with “an other” and “a nother” but changed over a period of a few hundred years to the single word, another.

What we may be seeing now is a re-splitting of the single word brought about the tmetic infixing [3] of the word whole. And what’s also interesting is that although the word other is used very, very frequently in many situations, the tmesis is between a and nother – a word that doesn’t exist in modern English – and not an and other, which would make some grammatical sense.

But that’s because this splitting doesn’t have to make grammatical sense but phonetic sense; in other words, the choice of where to make the split is not dictated by grammatical accuracy but by phonetic ease. Simply put, it’s easier to say “a whole nother” than “an whole other.”

The word whole starts with a “h” sound, even though it’s written with a “w,” and there’s a rule in English that helps you make the unconscious choice of whether a word is preceded by the article “an” or “a.” If the following word is a consonant, you use “a”; if a vowel, use “an.” So you have “a dog,” “a cat,” “a broom,” and “a spoon,” but in contrast, you have “an egg,” “an ovary,” “an operation,” and “an elephant.” The “h” sound behaves like a consonant so you get “a house,” “a Hobbit,” “a handkerchief,” and “a whole.” [4] Again, don’t let the “w” fool you – the word is pronounced “hole” (/həʊl/).

So when it comes to wedging whole into another, that unconscious rule pushes you to create “a whole nother” and not “an whole other” because “an whole” breaks the rule. The fact that you might not “know” this rule overtly doesn’t mean that is isn’t there covertly. And the current use of “a whole nother” is further evidence of its existence.

Our discomfort at hearing this phrase is partly brought about because with our grammar hats on, we expect to hear “a whole other”and we balk at the non-word, nother. However,  the phenomenon is, as I argued, driven by phonological rules and not syntactic or lexical, and from this perspective, “a whole nother” is oddly correct! This doesn’t mean the Dudes recommend using it – but we do recognize it as a pretty neat linguistic phenomenon.

Join us next time for another fan-bloody-tastic adventure into the world of speech and language!

Notes
[1] For a classic article on this, you should check out McCarthy, J. (1982) Prosodic Structure and Expletive Infixation, Language, 58(3), 574-590, available online via JSTOR at www.jstor.org/stable/413849

[2] Those of you who are ahead of the curve might say, “But what about words such as ingrowing and ingress which have a “g” after the prefix – why is it in- and not something else?” Well phonetically, it is something else because in both these cases, the actual sound of the “n” turns out to be “ng” – as in “sing” or “bang.” The “n” changes to match the position of the tongue in the sound “g,” which linguists and speechies call “velar.” So for those of you who can read the International Phonetic Alphabet, here are the rules for the in-/im- prefix:

a. “in-” [ɪn] -> [ɪn] /_[+dental]
b. “in-” [ɪn] -> [ɪŋ] /_[+velar]
c. “in-” [ɪn] -> [m] /_[+bilabial]

Give yourself 10 extra smart points if that made sense! And you thought all speechies did was teach people how to say “How now, brown cow!”

[3] Go ahead. Try slipping “tmetic infixing” into a conversation and see what happens! I guarantee that your Perceived Pretentiousness Score (PPS) will hit an all-time high, and your success at impressing potential romantic partners will hit an all-time low. The Dudes don’t need to worry about this because they already have a high PPS and are married so have no need to impress anyone. My wife just rolls her eyes and suggests I get another drink.

[4] There are situations where a word is written using the letter “h” but doesn’t actually have the sound of the “h” but a vowel sound. In these cases, the article an is used. So the words hour and honest are written with an “h” but pronounced as “our” and “onest” (/aʊə/ and /ɒnɪst/). Typically, these are words that came from Old French, and French, as we know, is one of those languages where the “h” sound doesn’t appear at the beginning of words.

Little Things DO Matter – Even Little Words

Sometimes the linguistic stars align and a lexical event of supernova proportions takes place. More specifically, unless you’ve been taking a vacation on an island without an internet connection or phone service [1] you’ve doubtless learned about the word twerk and, if you’re really unlucky, seen it demonstrated by pop princess Hannah Montana Miley Cyrus. Once the idol of millions of teen girls across the world, Miley is now the idol of millions of aged perverts who can’t wait for her to make a real porn movie instead of the “R”-rated performance she provided for the VMA Awards ceremony on August 25th, 2013.

Public domain image

Let’s twerk!

Tempting as it is to pander to the prurient and show you videos and pictures, there’s little need to do that because at this moment in time as I suspect 50% of the world’s internet content is already full of such material, and if you start typing “Miley Cyrus” into your search engine, you’ll probably get millions of links even before you get past the third “l” in her name!

As an SLP working in AAC, my interest is strictly professional and concerns the revelation from August 28th that twerk has officially entered the Oxford Dictionaries Online (ODO) site – that’s just three days after Miley’s graphic demonstration. So, just in case you are unsure, here’s the actual definition of twerk as used by Oxford:

Pronunciation: /twəːk/
Verb [no object]: informal.
Dance to popular music in a sexually provocative manner involving thrusting hip movements and a low, squatting stance.

Surprisingly, it was first noted in the 1990′s, and it is thought to be an alteration of the word work in the sense of “work it, baby, work it.” Normally when new words are added to the ODO, it’s fairly low-key and only word nerds really care. However, in this instance, it’s as if the Oxford marketing department had contracted with Miley to do her bump-and-grind act purely to promote the “release” of the new word – and a spectacular release it was! As I write, typing twerk into Google search returns 20,300,000 hits. Hell, “The Speech Dudes” only gets a paltry 4,990,000 hits!

So let’s think a little about what we can learn from this little episode because we, the Dudes, would like to think of our little piece of cyberspace here as being educational – in the most laid-back of ways, of course.

When the inclusion of twerk was announced to the world, thousands of commentators leaped forward to say that it was now a “real word” because it was “in the dictionary.” I want you all to take another look at that second phrase, “in the dictionary.” The significant element is the use of the word the as a determiner that precedes a noun. Typically, we use the - often referred to as the definite article – to refer to a single, specific thing. But we use the word a (0r an) – the indefinite article – to refer to one of many things. There is a world of difference between “Pass me the pencil” and “Pass me a pencil.” There’s an even bigger difference between, “Hey, you’re just the man!” and “Hey, you’re just a man!” And although some folks treat the and a/an as merely “fillers” that can be ignored, there are some occasions where they are absolutely crucial to the meaning of a sentence. Tell me “You’re the shit!” and I’m happy; tell me “You’re a shit!” and I’m a wee bit upset.

In this instance, the reality is that twerk has been added to a dictionary and not the dictionary. If it had been added to the dictionary, we’d have had to be clear which one that was, and then agree that is was the only one that matters. For me, “the dictionary” is the 20-volume complete Oxford English Dictionary (OED), 2nd edition, and anything else is “a dictionary.” But for twerk, as I mentioned earlier, the dictionary in question is the Oxford Dictionaries Online dictionary, which is a very different beast than the OED. A number of commentators failed to mention this, and indeed some suggested it was the OED.

Picture of a dictionary

Is it in the dictionary?

The ODO is what you would call a “living dictionary,” which is aimed at capturing the global lexicon as it exists now. It’s a less profane and more researched version of the Urban Dictionary, which is also a living dictionary but without vetting or investigation. Words can, in fact, be taken out of the ODO if they cease to be used, whereas once a word gets into the OED, it never leaves. This is because the OED is a “historical dictionary” that aims to trace the meanings of a word from its earliest known use through to either its demise (anyone used shrepe [2] lately?) or its latest meaning. For example awful didn’t originally mean “terrible” but “wonderful” – it referred to something that left you full of awe.

Something else we can learn is the speed at which a new word can be used in its constituent morphological forms i.e. twerk, twerking, twerks, and twerked. Using ghits [3], we see the following hit figures, which gives us some idea of the distribution of the word as a whole [4]:

     twerk: 20,300,000
     twerking: 17,700,000
     twerks: 2,850,00
     twerked: 439,000

Not surprisingly, we find that an adjective form also exists, twerky (71,200 ghits) but there’s a dearth of adverbial examples with twerkily only scoring 84 ghits, which is close to nothing. I should, however, now total all these up because they are all forms of the base form twerk, pushing the total ghit score up from 20,300,000 to just over double at 41,360,200.

For folks working on teaching vocabulary, the “teachable moment” from the whole Miley Cyrus debacle would be to use the word twerk as a springboard for reinforcing regular morphology. Thus, any worksheet along the following lines would be splendid:

“Miley Cyrus says she likes to TWERK. In fact, she TWERK___ a lot! We saw a video yesterday and she was TWERK____. Some people think she shouldn’t have TWERK___ at all.” [5]

So there you have it. Vocabulary, morphology, frequency studies, and the critical importance of the definite and indefinite articles. And who says the Speech Dudes site isn’t educational?

Notes
[1] If you’ve never done this, it’s highly recommended. It’s what used to be called a vacation, when you went away to somewhere very different from your home and spent one or two weeks doing fun and relaxing things that were not work related. Sadly, many people are now permanently connected to their jobs via smart technology and actually start their vacation mornings by checking work emails or making a couple of calls. This is not called a vacation; it’s called working from home – for which you don’t get paid. Cutting yourself off from the world is surprisingly difficult and something you really have to plan for and work at. Try it – and see if you have the will to do it!

[2] Shrepe means “to scratch” and comes from the Old English screpan=to scrape, which in turn came from  Old Norse skrapa=to scrape or erase, and ultimately from an unattested but re-constructed Germanic word *skrap-=scrape. Shrepe sadly went out of fashion in the 13th century but it’s good to pull such words out of the closet once in a while and wear them for just a day.

[3] Ghit is short for “Google hit,” which is the number of hits an entry in the Google search box gets. It appears just below the search term in a phrase such as About 39,300 results (0.13 seconds). It’s not an official measure in the world of corpus linguistics but it a pretty useful “quick and dirty” way of estimating web frequencies. If you find a word or phrase that only has ONE ghit, it’s called a googlewhack. Try slipping that one into your next conversation at the bar.

[4] Trying to define a “word” is not as easy as you might think. For example, are eat, eats, eating, ate, and eaten 5 words or just one? After all, the difference between eat and eats is simply based on whether you are talking about the 1st, 2nd, or 3rd person i.e. I/you/we/they eat but he/she/it eats. One way to get around this is to talk about something called a LEMMA, which is basically the dictionary form of a verb – such as twerk. A dictionary would, for instance, have the word eat as an entry, but not necessarily eats, eating, or eaten. It would, however, include ate because it’s a very irregular form of the lemma, eat.

[5] I admit that shamelessly using Miley Cyrus’s despicable behavior to teach language worries me no more than when I used beer bottle tops as poker chips to teach my daughters to count. Some may question my use of alcohol and poker for my “teachable moment” but hey, what can I say – I’m a dude!