Beware the bad big wolf: why you need to put your adjectives in the right order


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Simon Horobin, University of Oxford

Unlikely as it sounds, the topic of adjective use has gone “viral”. The furore centres on the claim, taken from Mark Forsyth’s book The Elements of Eloquence, that adjectives appearing before a noun must appear in the following strict sequence: opinion, size, age, shape, colour, origin, material, purpose, Noun. Even the slightest attempt to disrupt this sequence, according to Forsyth, will result in the speaker sounding like a maniac. To illustrate this point, Forsyth offers the following example: “a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife”.

 

But is the “rule” worthy of an internet storm – or is it more of a ripple in a teacup? Well, certainly the example is a rather unlikely sentence, and not simply because whittling knives are not in much demand these days – ignoring the question of whether they can be both green and silver. This is because it is unusual to have a string of attributive adjectives (ones that appear before the noun they describe) like this.

More usually, speakers of English break up the sequence by placing some of the adjectives in predicative position – after the noun. Not all adjectives, however, can be placed in either position. I can refer to “that man who is asleep” but it would sound odd to refer to him as “that asleep man”; we can talk about the “Eastern counties” but not the “counties that are Eastern”. Indeed, our distribution of adjectives both before and after the noun reveals another constraint on adjective use in English – a preference for no more than three before a noun. An “old brown dog” sounds fine, a “little old brown dog” sounds acceptable, but a “mischievous little old brown dog” sounds plain wrong.

Rules, rules, rules

Nevertheless, however many adjectives we choose to employ, they do indeed tend to follow a predictable pattern. While native speakers intuitively follow this rule, most are unaware that they are doing so; we agree that the “red big dog” sounds wrong, but don’t know why. In order to test this intuition linguists have analysed large corpora of electronic data, to see how frequently pairs of adjectives like “big red” are preferred to “red big”. The results confirm our native intuition, although the figures are not as comprehensive as we might expect – the rule accounts for 78% of the data.

We know how to use them … without even being aware of it.
Shutterstock

But while linguists have been able to confirm that there are strong preferences in the ordering of pairs of adjectives, no such statistics have been produced for longer strings. Consequently, while Forsyth’s rule appears to make sense, it remains an untested, hypothetical, large, sweeping (sorry) claim.

In fact, even if we stick to just two adjectives it is possible to find examples that appear to break the rule. The “big bad wolf” of fairy tale, for instance, shows the size adjective preceding the opinion one; similarly, “big stupid” is more common than “stupid big”. Examples like these are instead witness to the “Polyanna Principle”, by which speakers prefer to present positive, or indifferent, values before negative ones.

Another consideration of Forsyth’s proposed ordering sequence is that it makes no reference to other constraints that influence adjective order, such as when we use two adjectives that fall into the same category. Little Richard’s song “Long Tall Sally” would have sounded strange if he had called it Tall Long Sally, but these are both adjectives of size.

Definitely not Tall Long Sally.

Similarly, we might describe a meal as “nice and spicy” but never “spicy and nice” – reflecting a preference for the placement of general opinions before more specific ones. We also need to bear in mind the tendency for noun phrases to become lexicalised – forming words in their own right. Just as a blackbird is not any kind of bird that is black, a little black dress does not refer to any small black dress but one that is suitable for particular kinds of social engagement.

Since speakers view a “little black dress” as a single entity, its order is fixed; as a result, modifying adjectives must precede little – a “polyester little black dress”. This means that an adjective specifying its material appears before those referring to size and colour, once again contravening Forsyth’s rule.

Making sense of language

Of course, the rule is a fair reflection of much general usage – although the reasons behind this complex set of constraints in adjective order remain disputed. Some linguists have suggested that it reflects the “nouniness” of an adjective; since colour adjectives are commonly used as nouns – “red is my favourite colour” – they appear close to that slot.

Another conditioning factor may be the degree to which an adjective reflects a subjective opinion rather than an objective description – therefore, subjective adjectives that are harder to quantify (boring, massive, middle-aged) tend to appear further away from the noun than more concrete ones (red, round, French).

Prosody, the rhythm and sound of poetry, is likely to play a role, too – as there is a tendency for speakers to place longer adjectives after shorter ones. But probably the most compelling theory links adjective position with semantic closeness to the noun being described; adjectives that are closely related to the noun in meaning, and are therefore likely to appear frequently in combination with it, are placed closest, while those that are less closely related appear further away.

In Forsyth’s example, it is the knife’s whittling capabilities that are most significant – distinguishing it from a carving, fruit or butter knife – while its loveliness is hardest to define (what are the standards for judging the loveliness of a whittling knife?) and thus most subjective. Whether any slight reorganisation of the other adjectives would really prompt your friends to view you as a knife-wielding maniac is harder to determine – but then, at least it’s just a whittling knife.

The Conversation

Simon Horobin, Professor of English Language and Literature, University of Oxford

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Why it’s hard for adults to learn a second language


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Brianna Yamasaki, University of Washington

As a young adult in college, I decided to learn Japanese. My father’s family is from Japan, and I wanted to travel there someday.

However, many of my classmates and I found it difficult to learn a language in adulthood. We struggled to connect new sounds and a dramatically different writing system to the familiar objects around us.

It wasn’t so for everyone. There were some students in our class who were able to acquire the new language much more easily than others.

So, what makes some individuals “good language learners?” And do such individuals have a “second language aptitude?”

What we know about second language aptitude

Past research on second language aptitude has focused on how people perceive sounds in a particular language and on more general cognitive processes such as memory and learning abilities. Most of this work has used paper-and-pencil and computerized tests to determine language-learning abilities and predict future learning.

Researchers have also studied brain activity as a way of measuring linguistic and cognitive abilities. However, much less is known about how brain activity predicts second language learning.

Is there a way to predict the aptitude of second language learning?

How does brain activity change while learning languages?
Brain image via www.shutterstock.com

In a recently published study, Chantel Prat, associate professor of psychology at the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences at the University of Washington, and I explored how brain activity recorded at rest – while a person is relaxed with their eyes closed – could predict the rate at which a second language is learned among adults who spoke only one language.

Studying the resting brain

Resting brain activity is thought to reflect the organization of the brain and it has been linked to intelligence, or the general ability used to reason and problem-solve.

We measured brain activity obtained from a “resting state” to predict individual differences in the ability to learn a second language in adulthood.

To do that, we recorded five minutes of eyes-closed resting-state electroencephalography, a method that detects electrical activity in the brain, in young adults. We also collected two hours of paper-and-pencil and computerized tasks.

We then had 19 participants complete eight weeks of French language training using a computer program. This software was developed by the U.S. armed forces with the goal of getting military personnel functionally proficient in a language as quickly as possible.

The software combined reading, listening and speaking practice with game-like virtual reality scenarios. Participants moved through the content in levels organized around different goals, such as being able to communicate with a virtual cab driver by finding out if the driver was available, telling the driver where their bags were and thanking the driver.

Here’s a video demonstration:

Nineteen adult participants (18-31 years of age) completed two 30-minute training sessions per week for a total of 16 sessions. After each training session, we recorded the level that each participant had reached. At the end of the experiment, we used that level information to calculate each individual’s learning rate across the eight-week training.

As expected, there was large variability in the learning rate, with the best learner moving through the program more than twice as quickly as the slowest learner. Our goal was to figure out which (if any) of the measures recorded initially predicted those differences.

A new brain measure for language aptitude

When we correlated our measures with learning rate, we found that patterns of brain activity that have been linked to linguistic processes predicted how easily people could learn a second language.

Patterns of activity over the right side of the brain predicted upwards of 60 percent of the differences in second language learning across individuals. This finding is consistent with previous research showing that the right half of the brain is more frequently used with a second language.

Our results suggest that the majority of the language learning differences between participants could be explained by the way their brain was organized before they even started learning.

Implications for learning a new language

Does this mean that if you, like me, don’t have a “quick second language learning” brain you should forget about learning a second language?

Not quite.

Language learning can depend on many factors.
Child image via www.shutterstock.com

First, it is important to remember that 40 percent of the difference in language learning rate still remains unexplained. Some of this is certainly related to factors like attention and motivation, which are known to be reliable predictors of learning in general, and of second language learning in particular.

Second, we know that people can change their resting-state brain activity. So training may help to shape the brain into a state in which it is more ready to learn. This could be an exciting future research direction.

Second language learning in adulthood is difficult, but the benefits are large for those who, like myself, are motivated by the desire to communicate with others who do not speak their native tongue.

The Conversation

Brianna Yamasaki, Ph.D. Student, University of Washington

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How reading fiction can help students understand the real world


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epa03637244 (FILE) A file picture dated 12 October 2002 shows Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe speaking during a press conference at the Frankfurt Book Fair, Germany. According to media reports on 22 March 2013, Chinua Achebe has died ending a literary career that spanned more than half a century. Achebe wrote more than 20 books in his life, many of them political and critical of African leaders, especially those in his homeland. EPA/FRANK MAY

Melissa Tandiwe Myambo, University of California, Los Angeles

The real world is often overwhelmingly complicated. Literature can help. This is true at universities too: courses in comparative literature offer students new insights into their chosen disciplines by unlocking new, varied perspectives.

How can those studying political science truly grasp the terror of living under a dictator? Perhaps by reading Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat, a magnificent historical novel about the tyrannical Trujillo regime in the Dominican Republic. Students who read it are unlikely to forget the dizzying Cold War political intrigues that led the US to first support Trujillo and then implement sanctions against him.

In area studies, students must learn about the politics of postcolonial government. Chinua Achebe’s 1966 novel, A Man of the People, explores how rapidly post-independence revolutionary zeal can turn venal as the corrupt, greedy postcolonial elite seizes the reins of power from the coloniser only to further strangle the majority.

I would suggest that teaching these and other subjects – history, economics, sociology, geography and many others – can only be enhanced by including novels, short stories and artistic feature films. Students will also benefit from learning the methods of critical reading that are inherent to literary study. In this article I will explore why this is the case, focusing largely on the important but contested field of international development studies.

Why development is about more than economics

International development studies cries out for a literary component precisely because it is such an ideological and normative subject. “Development” is itself a term that should demand ideological evaluation. It is more than economics. This is made clear by the UN’s Millennium and Sustainable Development Goals. These reiterate that “development” also focuses on cultural change, such as gender equity through empowering women and girls.

But the syllabus of almost any international development studies course contains a heavy dose of development economists: Amartya Sen, Joseph Stiglitz, Jeffrey Sachs. Or, if the professor is slightly more left-leaning, there will be works by anthropologists like James Ferguson and Arturo Escobar or brilliant political science professor Timothy Mitchell. Why only these? This is an area in which books in the humanities and arts are pertinent, yet one never sees a postcolonial novel on these syllabi.

It is frankly criminal. Development was constituted as a field of study and area of practice during the years of decolonisation after World War II. This was the very same time period which spawned the birth of what is today called postcolonial literature. But international development studies courses seldom broach the fundamental question of what is truly meant by development. Developing to what? For whose benefit? Under whose aegis? This question, however, is interrogated in a vast body of excellent fiction.

I have prescribed Nuruddin Farah’s 1993 novel, Gifts – inspired by Marcel Mauss’ classic ethnography The Gift – to my students. When development aid from powerful countries is donated to impoverished 1980s Somalia, a fine line is walked by both the West which “gives” and the Somalis who “receive.” The book is a long meditation on the tightrope act that teeters between donation and domination. Certainly my students learned more about how it really feels to be the recipient of donor aid from this novel than any of our social science readings, which were mostly written from the donors’ point of view.

Exploring different points of view

This isn’t to suggest that such novels are stand-ins for “native informants”, who are perceived to be experts about a culture, race or place simply because they belong to it. Quite the contrary. They should be read as literature, which literary critics like Mikhail Bakhtin describe as a jumble of competing viewpoints depending on language that always struggles to convey actual truth.

Point of view might be an easier concept for students to grasp at first than Bakhtin’s theory. It is a basic narrative technique that is explored in Literary Criticism 101 because it can change the way a story is told or perceived. In the rich 2006 film Bamako the people of Mali put the World Bank on trial to determine why their poisoned “gift” of development aid has left the country with such a debilitating debt burden.

From the World Bank’s perspective, development might mean one thing but for those “beneficiaries,” it means something quite different. Art has the power to convey that point of view with visceral impact. Isn’t this essential for international development students who aim to help the “other” to “develop”?

Room for myriad insights

The end state of “development,” which is implied but hardly ever explicitly theorised in international development studies, is “modernity” and becoming “modern”. This is a subject on which literature and literary theory can offer myriad insights.

Zakes Mda’s wonderful 2005 novel Heart of Redness depicts the tale of a contemporary village in post-apartheid South Africa. Here, two groups of villagers hold radically different positions on what development means to them. Does it mean street lamps and a casino resort that will bring tourists? Or maintaining a more “traditional,” environmentally-sustainable lifestyle albeit with some “modern” amenities? The villagers’ differing positions are also informed by their different views on their history of colonisation.

History is, of course, essential for understanding any subject. For this reason I’ve not restricted myself to postcolonial literature only in teaching my classes. Robinson Crusoe, first published in 1719, is an excellent novel for introducing the study of British imperialism which is a prerequisite for understanding our contemporary global cultural economy.

Pushing for positive change

In our globalising world, the stakes could not be higher. Many of our students will end up making policy, allocating aid, driving the global economy. They will change the world. Literature and humanistic thinking enable them to change it for the better.

The Conversation

Melissa Tandiwe Myambo, Fublright-Nehru Scholar, Research Associate, Centre for Indian Studies, Wits University, University of California, Los Angeles

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Chaos by Gerard Nolst Trenité (English pronunciation)


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Gerard Nolst Trenité – The Chaos (1922)

Dearest creature in creation
Studying English pronunciation,
   I will teach you in my verse
   Sounds like corpse, corps, horse and worse.

I will keep you, Susy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy;
   Tear in eye, your dress you’ll tear;
   Queer, fair seer, hear my prayer.

Pray, console your loving poet,
Make my coat look new, dear, sew it!
   Just compare heart, hear and heard,
   Dies and diet, lord and word.

Sword and sward, retain and Britain
(Mind the latter how it’s written).
   Made has not the sound of bade,
   Saysaid, paypaid, laid but plaid.

Now I surely will not plague you
With such words as vague and ague,
   But be careful how you speak,
   Say: gush, bush, steak, streak, break, bleak ,

Previous, precious, fuchsia, via
Recipe, pipe, studding-sail, choir;
   Woven, oven, how and low,
   Script, receipt, shoe, poem, toe.

Say, expecting fraud and trickery:
Daughter, laughter and Terpsichore,
   Branch, ranch, measles, topsails, aisles,
   Missiles, similes, reviles.

Wholly, holly, signal, signing,
Same, examining, but mining,
   Scholar, vicar, and cigar,
   Solar, mica, war and far.

From “desire”: desirableadmirable from “admire”,
Lumber, plumber, bier, but brier,
   Topsham, brougham, renown, but known,
   Knowledge, done, lone, gone, none, tone,

One, anemone, Balmoral,
Kitchen, lichen, laundry, laurel.
   Gertrude, German, wind and wind,
   Beau, kind, kindred, queue, mankind,

Tortoise, turquoise, chamois-leather,
Reading, Reading, heathen, heather.
   This phonetic labyrinth
   Gives moss, gross, brook, brooch, ninth, plinth.

Have you ever yet endeavoured
To pronounce revered and severed,
   Demon, lemon, ghoul, foul, soul,
   Peter, petrol and patrol?

Billet does not end like ballet;
Bouquet, wallet, mallet, chalet.
   Blood and flood are not like food,
   Nor is mould like should and would.

Banquet is not nearly parquet,
Which exactly rhymes with khaki.
   Discount, viscount, load and broad,
   Toward, to forward, to reward,

Ricocheted and crocheting, croquet?
Right! Your pronunciation’s OK.
   Rounded, wounded, grieve and sieve,
   Friend and fiend, alive and live.

Is your r correct in higher?
Keats asserts it rhymes Thalia.
   Hugh, but hug, and hood, but hoot,
   Buoyant, minute, but minute.

Say abscission with precision,
Now: position and transition;
   Would it tally with my rhyme
   If I mentioned paradigm?

Twopence, threepence, tease are easy,
But cease, crease, grease and greasy?
   Cornice, nice, valise, revise,
   Rabies, but lullabies.

Of such puzzling words as nauseous,
Rhyming well with cautious, tortious,
   You’ll envelop lists, I hope,
   In a linen envelope.

Would you like some more? You’ll have it!
Affidavit, David, davit.
   To abjure, to perjure. Sheik
   Does not sound like Czech but ache.

Liberty, library, heave and heaven,
Rachel, loch, moustache, eleven.
   We say hallowed, but allowed,
   People, leopard, towed but vowed.

Mark the difference, moreover,
Between mover, plover, Dover.
   Leeches, breeches, wise, precise,
   Chalice, but police and lice,

Camel, constable, unstable,
Principle, disciple, label.
   Petal, penal, and canal,
   Wait, surmise, plait, promise, pal,

Suit, suite, ruin. Circuit, conduit
Rhyme with “shirk it” and “beyond it”,
   But it is not hard to tell
   Why it’s pall, mall, but Pall Mall.

Muscle, muscular, gaol, iron,
Timber, climber, bullion, lion,
   Worm and storm, chaise, chaos, chair,
   Senator, spectator, mayor,

Ivy, privy, famous; clamour
Has the a of drachm and hammer.
   Pussy, hussy and possess,
   Desert, but desert, address.

Golf, wolf, countenance, lieutenants
Hoist in lieu of flags left pennants.
   Courier, courtier, tomb, bomb, comb,
   Cow, but Cowper, some and home.

Solder, soldier! Blood is thicker“,
Quoth he, “than liqueur or liquor“,
   Making, it is sad but true,
   In bravado, much ado.

Stranger does not rhyme with anger,
Neither does devour with clangour.
   Pilot, pivot, gaunt, but aunt,
   Font, front, wont, want, grand and grant.

Arsenic, specific, scenic,
Relic, rhetoric, hygienic.
   Gooseberry, goose, and close, but close,
   Paradise, rise, rose, and dose.

Say inveigh, neigh, but inveigle,
Make the latter rhyme with eagle.
   Mind! Meandering but mean,
   Valentine and magazine.

And I bet you, dear, a penny,
You say mani-(fold) like many,
   Which is wrong. Say rapier, pier,
   Tier (one who ties), but tier.

Arch, archangel; pray, does erring
Rhyme with herring or with stirring?
   Prison, bison, treasure trove,
   Treason, hover, cover, cove,

Perseverance, severance. Ribald
Rhymes (but piebald doesn’t) with nibbled.
   Phaeton, paean, gnat, ghat, gnaw,
   Lien, psychic, shone, bone, pshaw.

Don’t be down, my own, but rough it,
And distinguish buffet, buffet;
   Brood, stood, roof, rook, school, wool, boon,
   Worcester, Boleyn, to impugn.

Say in sounds correct and sterling
Hearse, hear, hearken, year and yearling.
   Evil, devil, mezzotint,
   Mind the z! (A gentle hint.)

Now you need not pay attention
To such sounds as I don’t mention,
   Sounds like pores, pause, pours and paws,
   Rhyming with the pronoun yours;

Nor are proper names included,
Though I often heard, as you did,
   Funny rhymes to unicorn,
   Yes, you know them, Vaughan and Strachan.

No, my maiden, coy and comely,
I don’t want to speak of Cholmondeley.
   No. Yet Froude compared with proud
   Is no better than McLeod.

But mind trivial and vial,
Tripod, menial, denial,
   Troll and trolley, realm and ream,
   Schedule, mischief, schism, and scheme.

Argil, gill, Argyll, gill. Surely
May be made to rhyme with Raleigh,
   But you’re not supposed to say
   Piquet rhymes with sobriquet.

Had this invalid invalid
Worthless documents? How pallid,
   How uncouth he, couchant, looked,
   When for Portsmouth I had booked!

Zeus, Thebes, Thales, Aphrodite,
Paramour, enamoured, flighty,
   Episodes, antipodes,
   Acquiesce, and obsequies.

Please don’t monkey with the geyser,
Don’t peel ‘taters with my razor,
   Rather say in accents pure:
   Nature, stature and mature.

Pious, impious, limb, climb, glumly,
Worsted, worsted, crumbly, dumbly,
   Conquer, conquest, vase, phase, fan,
   Wan, sedan and artisan.

The th will surely trouble you
More than r, ch or w.
   Say then these phonetic gems:
   Thomas, thyme, Theresa, Thames.

Thompson, Chatham, Waltham, Streatham,
There are more but I forget ’em
   Wait! I’ve got it: Anthony,
   Lighten your anxiety.

The archaic word albeit
Does not rhyme with eight-you see it;
   With and forthwith, one has voice,
   One has not, you make your choice.

Shoes, goes, does *. Now first say: finger;
Then say: singer, ginger, linger.
   Real, zeal, mauve, gauze and gauge,
   Marriage, foliage, mirage, age,

Hero, heron, query, very,
Parry, tarry fury, bury,
   Dost, lost, post, and doth, cloth, loth,
   Job, Job, blossom, bosom, oath.

Faugh, oppugnant, keen oppugners,
Bowing, bowing, banjo-tuners
   Holm you know, but noes, canoes,
   Puisne, truism, use, to use?

Though the difference seems little,
We say actual, but victual,
   Seat, sweat, chaste, caste, Leigh, eight, height,
   Put, nut, granite, and unite.

Reefer does not rhyme with deafer,
Feoffer does, and zephyr, heifer.
   Dull, bull, Geoffrey, George, ate, late,
   Hint, pint, senate, but sedate.

Gaelic, Arabic, pacific,
Science, conscience, scientific;
   Tour, but our, dour, succour, four,
   Gas, alas, and Arkansas.

Say manoeuvre, yacht and vomit,
Next omit, which differs from it
   Bona fide, alibi
   Gyrate, dowry and awry.

Sea, idea, guinea, area,
Psalm, Maria, but malaria.
   Youth, south, southern, cleanse and clean,
   Doctrine, turpentine, marine.

Compare alien with Italian,
Dandelion with battalion,
   Rally with ally; yea, ye,
   Eye, I, ay, aye, whey, key, quay!

Say aver, but ever, fever,
Neither, leisure, skein, receiver.
   Never guess-it is not safe,
   We say calves, valves, half, but Ralf.

Starry, granary, canary,
Crevice, but device, and eyrie,
   Face, but preface, then grimace,
   Phlegm, phlegmatic, ass, glass, bass.

Bass, large, target, gin, give, verging,
Ought, oust, joust, and scour, but scourging;
   Ear, but earn; and ere and tear
   Do not rhyme with here but heir.

Mind the o of off and often
Which may be pronounced as orphan,
   With the sound of saw and sauce;
   Also soft, lost, cloth and cross.

Pudding, puddle, putting. Putting?
Yes: at golf it rhymes with shutting.
   Respite, spite, consent, resent.
   Liable, but Parliament.

Seven is right, but so is even,
Hyphen, roughen, nephew, Stephen,
   Monkey, donkey, clerk and jerk,
   Asp, grasp, wasp, demesne, cork, work.

A of valour, vapid vapour,
S of news (compare newspaper),
   G of gibbet, gibbon, gist,
   I of antichrist and grist,

Differ like diverse and divers,
Rivers, strivers, shivers, fivers.
   Once, but nonce, toll, doll, but roll,
   Polish, Polish, poll and poll.

Pronunciation-think of Psyche!-
Is a paling, stout and spiky.
   Won’t it make you lose your wits
   Writing groats and saying “grits”?

It’s a dark abyss or tunnel
Strewn with stones like rowlock, gunwale,
   Islington, and Isle of Wight,
   Housewife, verdict and indict.

Don’t you think so, reader, rather,
Saying lather, bather, father?
   Finally, which rhymes with enough,
   Though, through, bough, cough, hough, sough, tough??

Hiccough has the sound of sup
My advice is: GIVE IT UP!

Notes on The Chaos

“The Chaos” is a poem which demonstrates the irregularity of English spelling and pronunciation, written by Gerard Nolst Trenité (1870-1946), also known under the pseudonym Charivarius. It first appeared in an appendix to the author’s 1920 textbook Drop Your Foreign Accent: engelsche uitspraakoefeningen.