July 1, 2019

July 1 Site Update

Hello! Just wanted to let you all know that I'm alive and kickin'.

The modern expectation for constant content posted weekly, daily, or multiple times a day means that if a site takes a while to update, it can seem dead. I myself sometimes fret over whether I need to pump out more constant content.

But my goal isn't to compete with sites that are bringing you content all the time. My goal is to produce novel research on understudied linguistic phenomena - and that's not beholden to any schedule. I can spend months researching a topic and only find the lynchpin tying it all together at the very end, in a completely unexpected way. If I had given myself a goal to produce a Dialect Dissection every month, for example, I would miss out on so many important things to include.

That being said, since I have also let the Twitter take a break, I figured I should post on here to reassure everyone that there is new material coming. I've been trying to take a break from social media for typical time consumption reasons, but if I don't use Twitter as much, I have to communicate with you all somehow.

I'm planning on doing the first major rewrites of (a) older articles that I did when the site's focus and style wasn't clearly established and (b) articles that I have since found important connections and which require more than a cursory update to explain. Although you may think that rewrites should come faster than new articles, there is enough new information in them to make them take as much time, not to mention that figuring out how to incorporate the old material in there is a challenge in and of itself.

I would like to thank the regular site visitors that have left comments on my posts - I love hearing from you all! And anyone who's decided to give this humble site a read - another thank you to you.

There is more to come in 2019 for Ace Linguist, so stay tuned!

- Karen

June 3, 2019

Because You Just Told Me - Presupposition in Fiction

I’ve been listening to Lingthusiasm episodes over again and hit upon the presupposition episode. If you haven’t heard it yet, you should check it out (or read the transcript if you’re not a fan of podcasts).

What’s a presupposition

A presupposition is an implicit assumption about the world that is taken for granted in an utterance. Presupposition is an important concept in pragmatics, semantics, and philosophy (a lot of the work that has been done on presupposition has actually been done by philosophers as opposed to linguists). We presuppose many things all the time, because actually having to state every single thing in a sentence that exists would take a long time.

“The sheep are grazing.”

This sentence presupposes that there are things, sheep, and that they are capable of doing an action, such as grazing. This seems obvious, but if you change this…

“The matriniax are grazing.”

This presupposes we know what a matriniax is. Do you know? I don’t know either. In this case, we would have benefitted from a prior description of what a matriniax is. As it stands, we can’t really understand this sentence except for that there is a thing, a matriniax, that there are many of them, and they are capable of grazing. The nature of matriniax is unknown to us.

There are plenty of words and grammatical situations that trigger presupposition. Wikipedia has a pretty good list.

As an example of the philosophical interest of presupposition, think about what it means for a presupposition to be false. The most famous example is “The King of France is bald.” There is no person alive right now who can be called “the king of france.” Does that mean that this sentence is false? But if this sentence is false, then that means that “the kind of france is not bald” must be true, and that sentence cannot be true because there is no king of France. Some philosophers say that a negative presupposition results in a statement without a truth value - a statement that is neither true nor false.

Using Presuppositions for Effect

One thing McCulloch mentions is presupposition in the Lizzie Bennet diaries, where Lizzie’s sister pretends not to have watched an episode of Lizzie’s diary. Lizzie asks, “you just want to know about Darcy’s letter, don’t you?” Darcy’s letter was mentioned earlier. Lizzie’s sister says “No I don’t!” which outs her as having watched Lizzie’s diary - there’s no way she would know about Darcy’s letter otherwise. Outed by presupposition.

This is a pretty popular technique in fiction. TV Tropes has a page dedicated to the trope, although they do not mention how presupposition plays into it. Presupposition in media can be used for dramatic effect for one character to verify knowledge by presupposing it.

Some additional examples: in the musical Legally Blonde, Elle is part of the defense team of Brooke Wyndham, who has been accused of murdering her husband to run away with her poolboy. Elle suspects that her poolboy is lying about having been amorously involved with Elle because she thinks he’s gay. Her colleague Emmett decides to prod him by asking him, “And your first name again is?” with the poolboy responding appropriately, and then asking “and your boyfriend’s name?” and the poolboy replies “Carlos,” shocking everyone. Emmett presupposes that the poolboy had a boyfriend, and the poolboy absentmindedly confirms his presupposition instead of challenging it. This reveal leads Carlos to show up and declare that the poolboy is indeed gay, and has never been involved with any woman.

In an actual courtroom, presuppositions can be dangerous. Presuppositions can be used to create loaded questions, such as “when did you stop smoking?" which presupposes that smoking - of a legal or illegal sort - must have taken place. The defendant, if they have never smoked before, must make the clarification: "I have never smoked."

Villains can also make use of presupposition. One of my favorite examples is from Sonic Adventure 2. Tails and Sonic were offering a fake Chaos Emerald to Dr. Eggman, who was trying to collect all 7 for nefarious purposes. However, Dr. Eggman imprisons Sonic as he's approaching, and he states, “You didn’t think you could fool me with that fake chaos emerald, could you?” Tails, believing he’s been caught, asks “how did you know that was fake?” Sonic tries to get Tails to stop, but it’s too late. Dr. Eggman replies, “because you just told me, fox boy!” Here presupposition is used to confirm information that one is not certain about - as in Legally Blonde where the poolboy could have been gay or European, Dr. Eggman knows that there is a fake emerald, but he wanted to confirm it was fake, likely to rub it in their faces.

Note: volume increases a lot in the second half of the video.

May 27, 2019

The Colt-Cult merger?

I was once at a dinner party with some colleagues, and a co-worker of mine was explaining to another co-worker a story they had heard about the eclipse which had happened in 2016.

A: It turns out that they were actually in a cult.

B: A colt? Like a baby horse?

A: No, not a colt, a cult, with a leader.

B: Oh, you mean a cult!

What had happened in this exchange? Co-worker A pronounced 'cult' as [kolt], with a vowel similar to 'cold' [kold]. But B pronounced 'cult' with a low, unrounded vowel: [kʌlt], with the vowel of 'cut' [kʌt]. Moreover, co-worker B pronounced 'colt' and 'cult' differently: [kolt] and [kʌlt], while co-worker A pronounced the same: [kolt]. This is an example of a new merger I'm tentatively calling the 'colt-cult' merger (although I've also seen it called the hull-hole merger). This is when /ʌl/ and /ol/ merge to /ol/, so that words like 'colt', 'cult', 'hull', and 'hole' all have the same [o] vowel. The realization of the 'ul' vowel can be lower, so "culled" would be [kɔld] (and similar to old American 'called').

This seems to be a merger that happened on the phonological level, because before I started reading about English dialectology, I had no idea that "cult" and "colt" were supposed to have different vowel qualities. Perhaps "cult" had a slightly lower vowel, but to me they were similar enough that you could make a pun out of it. I recall watching an episode of Bones where the protagonist, Temperance Brennan, very clearly said "skull" [skʌl] with a low, back, unrounded vowel, and thinking that was odd. It turns out, historically, the odd one is me.

There are some particularities to this. All the people I know with this merger speak American English, but it's not limited to any region. Co-worker B was from Pennsylvania, whereas I am from Florida. The Americans I've met who have this pronunciation pronounce /ol/ without a diphthong. This is in contrast to /o/ anywhere else. This means "go" has a diphthong but "gold" has a monophthong.

While there are many historic vowel changes before /l/, this merger seems to be on-going because there isn't a lot of research or awareness on it. Information on it includes this uncited quote from Wikipedia, but about English English: "The hull–hole merger is a conditioned merger of /ʌ/ and /oʊ/ before /l/ occurring for some speakers of English English with l-vocalization. As a result, "hull" and "hole" are homophones as [hɔʊ]." The realization of this merger would certainly be quite different from the American one, because the American one retains /l/ in both situations. Labov, Ash, and Boberg's he Atlas of North American English (2006) also mentions that this is a merger in American English that might require more attention in the future, but don't discuss it in depth otherwise.

Wild Speculation on where it came from

Alright, so here comes some wild speculation completely off the top of my head on why this is happening. Don't quote me on this, because these aren't developed ideas. This is just some fun free association to think about what other sound changes might be related to this merger.

One interesting commonality between co-worker A and I is that we both have the cot-caught merger. This means that we do not use the [ɔ] vowel in words that used to have it, such as "bought", "caught," "caller", and "law." We instead use the [ɑ] vowel and put those words in the same category as "bot," "cot," "coller," and "la." If you are a North American and you also have the cot-caught merger, then you may not be familiar with which words have the /ɔ/ sound or what the /ɔ/ sound even is. [ɔ] is pronounced much lower and backer in the mouth than [ɑ] - I find it helps to imagine you're an aristocratic British man or some other character from Downton Abbey, and saying "law" with as low a vowel as you can muster. As a rule of thumb, words spelled with 'aw' (law, caw), 'au' (caught), and -all (ball, all) tend to have the /ɔ/ sound. Now, we are especially interested in the ones with an /l/, so words like "ball" and "caller." While there are many words with /ɔl/, there are relatively fewer words that are pronounced /ɑl/. This list from Wiktionary shows the dire state of words that rhyme with 'oll'. (Note that this excludes words that also have the 'oll' sound like 'acknowledge'):

  • boll (in some pronunciations; see also -əʊl)
  • coll
  • doll
  • gnoll
  • knoll (in some pronunciations; see also -əʊl)
  • lol
  • loll
  • moll
  • noll
  • pol
  • poll (in some pronunciations; see also -əʊl)
  • quoll
  • troll (in some pronunciations; see also -əʊl)
  • vol

This means that the cot-caught merger doesn't introduce as much ambiguity before /l/. Perhaps there might be some confusion between 'caller' and 'collar,' or 'mall' and 'moll,' but overall it's not the biggest deal. A curious result of this is that I've noticed that a lot of Americans who otherwise have the cot-caught merger will still keep [ɔ] before 'l'! So they'll pronounce 'caught' and 'cot' with the same vowel [kɑt], but 'all' will have a different vowel [ɔl]. And this vowel is normally a little higher, so it's [ol]. And then the kicker comes where words which used to have 'oll' start being pronounced with [ɔl]. This is anecdotal, but I've been told that there are people who pronounce 'acknowledge' as [əknɔlədʒ]. For some folks then, /ɔl/ is spreading and covering areas that used to be /ɑl/. (I do not have this pronunciation.)

So now we have /ɔl ~ ol/ as a strange special category. Some Americans still distinguish between "caller" and "collar" while having the cot-caught merger, but what about 'call' vs 'coal'? I haven't had the opportunity to ask yet, but it would be interesting to wonder if these people who keep /ɔl ~ ol/ might merger 'call' and 'coal'. And if that's the case, might the absorption of 'cult' and 'hull' into /ɔl ~ ol/ be related? The 'uh' /ʌ/ vowel is otherwise safe in American English, but remember that strange things happen before /l/. If 'call' might be re-analyzed to be part of the same lexical set as 'coal', perhaps 'cull' might be being moved in that direction as well. Why, I'm not entirely sure from a theoretical basis. And this probably doesn't even describe the majority of people with the 'colt-cult' merger. For the record, I pronounce all /ɔl/ words with /ɑl/, so this doesn't describe me. But it seems that something is happening where words are moving between the COAL, CALL, and COLLER lexical sets, and now the CULL lexical set is joining the game.

Now that this wild and unfounded speculation on my part is done, I would love to hear if you all have any ideas on what is phonologically motivating this change. Is it related to the cot-caught merger? Are there people without the merger who still merge 'colt' and 'cult'? Are you aware of any research relating to changes in back vowels before /l/ and how it could apply to this situation? I would love to hear!