Monday, July 28, 2008

Headline Double-Take

Branson unveils space tourism jet

Branson? Really? I guess they're moving away from the whole "Like Nashville, but with less class and credibility" image:

Oh, wait, you mean this guy.

I watched him on Charlie Rose a few months ago. They were discussing global warming and Branson kept talking about "shugabase ethanol." Eventually I caught on that he was saying "sugar-based ethanol." It sounds like a great idea, but I'm sure the fed'ral gummint will find some way to mess it up. Like trying to make it from sugar beets instead of sugar cane. Or buying sugar from U.S. producers at an inflated price. Sigh.

Two gems from Lileks today. First, his comments on the movie Doomsday, which include this parody of Robert Burns:

"Kidding! I love the Scots. There’s not a windy, rainy day but where I don’t stand by the window and think of how Robert Burns put it: gain the war’d tae nick th’ snick / and gae ye dram-wise tae Gargamac / wit’ nae but thistles an’ th’ song o’ th’ mutton-leaver / aye, t’is wee but for naught. Man had a way with wairds."

If that doesn't make you laugh, then you've never given up memorizing "To a Mouse" when you hit a daiman icker in a thrave and thought to yourself "Who am I trying to impress, exactly?"

Second gem: the matchbook. Come to think of it indeed.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

But what kind of name is Waylon?

I heard this song today thanks to Jon. I liked it instantly.

Thanks to Pirate Jimmy for introducing me to songza.

After listening to the song a few times, there was a memory nagging at the back of my mind. I recognized Johnny Cash's voice, but who was the other voice? I liked his sound, so I googled the song and found out it was Waylon Jennings. I made a mental note to listen to some of his stuff. Then it came back to me. He performed this song in this movie.

Notice that there's some similarity between the hooks.

There Ain't No Good Chain Gang
is the earlier song (1978). I was going to accuse Jennings of self-plagiarism, but it actually wasn't written by him. And it turns out he didn't write There Ain't No Road Too Long either.

He did, of course, write this song:

Between that theme song and the Follow That Bird record we had, I heard a lot of Waylon Jennings in my childhood. I'll have to renew my acquaintance with him.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Another Osteen article

This one is written in a strange voice (HT: JT). Those first-person sentences in the opening and closing paragraphs have to be sarcastic, right? But they're just . . . weird . . . and they don't fit with the rest of the profile, which has a more even tone. But it's worth reading the whole thing.

A couple pieces of punditry: The historical backdrop of Osteen's theology reads a little clumsily. If I were going to mention only two movements as the "leads-up-to" of Osteen, they wouldn't be Puritanism and evangelicalism. The holiness/Pentecostal movement and the faith cure movement seem more relevant.

The part of the article that describes (unflatteringly) how Osteen looks when crying turns me off. In the book Jim & Casper Go to Church (spoken of the last time we talked about Osteen), a couple of preachers get criticized for "choking up" (presumably for manipulative purposes) at the end of the sermon. As someone who is given to excessive lacrimosity* myself, I'd like to protest that some of us just can't help it. I preached a sermon a couple of weeks ago and ended up trying to keep the moisture in my eyes and nose from getting out of hand. I didn't plan on it; sometimes it happens that way. I don't know if Osteen's faking it, but since I'd like people to give me the benefit of the doubt, that's what I owe him.

*This phrase stolen from Jonah Goldberg, who attributed it to William F. Buckley.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Pepper Pronunciation

Would you like some phonology? Well, you're in luck. There's a little phonological exercise that's been on my mind recently.

This is relatively simple stuff, basic syllabification, so I'm not going to bother with IPA transcription; I'll just use periods to separate the syllables. Now, you may have heard of a fast food Mexican restaurant called "Chipotle." The food is easy to love, but the name is difficult to pronounce (for some). Even an eminent student of linguistics like myself stumbled on it a few times.

The problem is a classic one: When a speaker of language X is confronted with a word from language Y, often the word violates the phonological rules of language X. The speaker has to adopt some strategy for incorporating the word into the phonological rules that govern her speech. There are a few basic strategies:

A. Avoid using the word entirely.
B. Alter the word to fit your native phonology.
C. Alter your phonology to accommodate the word.

In the case of "Chipotle," the speaker of English is confronted with a Mesoamerican word filtered through Spanish. My guess is that the most correct syllabification of the word is

(1) chi . po . tle

I.e., it's a three-syllable word with the structure CV . CV . CCV. Notice that the beginning (or onset) of the third syllable is the consonant cluster tl. This cluster is not allowed in English, but it is allowed in Mesoamerican languages. I don't believe I've ever heard someone pronounce the word this way, but you're welcome to try. This would be strategy C above; it's hard work, but it enables you to look down on almost everybody.

Most of us feel pretty good about ourselves when we can syllabify it as

(2) chi . pot . le

Notice the difference between (1) and (2). The t has moved from being the first consonant of the third syllable to being the closing consonant (the coda) of the second syllable. It would be fairly hard to tell the difference between (1) and (2), but see if you can say it one way and then the other. It's a great way to pass the morning commute. Especially if you carpool.

This is one example of strategy B, altering the word to the demands of English phonology. But is by no means the only example. There are several other pronounciations of this word, which each reflect a different method of coping with that tl cluster. Take

(3) chi . po . tuh . le

This method inserts a small vowel sound (called an epenthetic vowel) between the t and the l. This turns the three-syllable word into a four-syllable word, but unlike (2), it keeps all of the syllables open. This pronunciation is of the form CV . CV. CV . CV; there are no codas. This pronunciation doesn't seem to be as popular as

(4) chi . pot . l

My transcription here isn't terribly accurate, but the idea is that the last syllable is just the l sound (a syllabic "l"), like the last syllable of bottle. This pronunciation pulls the word farther into the heart of "normal" English phonology, so it is somewhat popular. For that same reason, however, those of us sophisticated enough to use pronunciation (2) look down on simpletons who mangle the word with pronunciation (4). But a brief look at the phonology shows that there is relatively little difference between the two methods. Neither amounts to pronouncing the word "correctly," as in, "how a native speaker would pronounce it."

(5) chi . pol . te

The combination tl as an onset is unheard of in English. As the end of one syllable and the start of another, it is present (as in bottle). However, it is much less common than the combination lt in that same position (as in faulty, celtic, Baltic). Lt can also occur as a coda (felt, smelt, colt). So it is not surprising that some speakers interchange t and l (a process called metathesis).

(6) chi . pol . et

I haven't heard anyone use this pronunciation myself, but a coworker mentioned that her sister used to call it this. It appears to be a second metathesis applied to (5).

Finally, you could adopt strategy A above and just not refer to the word. You could, for example, patronize Qdoba instead of Chipotle. But this strategy has several problems. First, you have to eat Qdoba's soggy food. Second, you have to wonder if the Q is really the uvular stop, and practice the consonant cluster qd over and over again. Third, you have to eat Qdoba's soggy, tasteless food. I could go on, but it's really more of the same. Qdoba's soggy, tasteless, overpriced food . . .

[Update: After writing this post, I checked the Wikipedia entry on chipotle. FWIW, the entry identifies the language of origin as Nahuatl and posits a Nahuatl form of chilpoctli.]

Friday, July 18, 2008

Working Class Cool

I love the drive-in. The retro feel, the comfort of your own vehicle, being able to bring whatever food you want, getting two movies for the price of one: it can't be beat. The Cascade is showing two superhero movies this week. What could be more summer than Batman and Will Smith on a July night? (I know that Hancock has gotten bad reviews, but Mrs. Chaka loves Will Smith sci-fi. She liked I, Robot, for goodness sake.)

The Cascade is in West Chicago and has an appropriately working-class vibe going on. The last time we went there, the car of teenagers next to us left a pile of crushed Pabst Blue Ribbon cans behind. I have a certain fondness for the Pabst Brewing Company; I had an small cooler I took on camping trips as a kid that was covered in the Blue Ribbon logo. (It may have gone to church camp with me. Who knows what my counselor thought.) If you drive through any small town in the Midwest, I guarantee that you will see a bar on the main drag with either a Pabst Blue Ribbon sign:

or an Old Style sign (also a product of Pabst Brewing Company).

This pic is actually from Chicago, so it doesn't quite capture the right look. But Google images isn't giving me anything better.

It was in Chicago, however, that I discovered that Pabst Blue Ribbon is also beloved by urban art hipsters. At a show at Heaven Gallery (where my sister-in-law was video curator), I saw a 24-pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon sitting next to the wine. At first I thought it was there because it was cheap, but it appears that PBR has developed quite a following in the hipster community. It may be featured on Stuff White People Like any day now.

The interesting story behind this strange meeting of cultures is told in a couple places. Click here for an article in the New York Times magazine. J. L. Schindler also pointed me to a mention in this Salon review.

That night at Heaven Gallery, when I threw a buck into the jar and grabbed a Pabst, I was being reintroduced to a piece of my own cultural background. In a crowd of people very different from me and from where I grew up, I experienced a flash of home. Nostalgia isn't quite the right word; it wasn't like going through the boxes in the attic. For lack of a better word, I'll call it a moment of homeliness.

But it was a funny, postmodern sort of homeliness. It's likely that the person who bought the 24-pack did so ironically. And when I drank that beer (something that I have never actually done in my hometown), I was enjoying it self-consciously. And now, that's the only way I'll ever be able to enjoy it.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Here's a study in context

You're smart people, so you know that a lot of meaning is conveyed through shared context. When there is no shared context, the meaning can be entirely misapprehended. Or one can assume that there is no meaning, that the "text" is either random, or poorly constructed, or maliciously constructed.

For example, take a look at this cartoon. What's your reaction? Is there a story here? Is it worth trying to figure out what it is?

I clicked over to that piece after reading Lilek's gushing review of it here. (Scroll down to the paragraph that begins "Unlike the finest comic talent of our times, Chris Onstad, who brings it all home with Roast Beef’s wedding.")

Needless to say, I was slightly disappointed with the cartoon. But I'm forced to acknowledge that it isn't meaningless or an attempt to epater le bourgeois.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Monday, July 07, 2008

Keeping busy

Well, that was a Fourth of July weekend filled to the brim with meat and painting. I had my first major experience with spackle. It wasn't pretty.

So, what have I been wasting my time on? Well, I'm about to start my third week of this. I discovered that it is possible for me to enjoy reading a novel. I've had no desire to read for the past few months, a very disorienting feeling for me. But I liked Straight Man, a novel about a fractious English department at a mediocre regional university in Pennsylvania (unfortunately, the picture on Amazon doesn't have a goose on the cover). Thanks to a local English professor who recommended it. It goes nicely alongside two other humorous novels about academia, Pnin (by Vladimir Nabokov) and Portuguese Irregular Verbs (both recommended by J. L. Schindler).
I also saw a good chunk of the musical 1776 on the Fourth, and now have a hankering to read some nonfiction. Maybe David McCullough's book of the same name.

And tonight I watched MacGyver. He's from Minnesota, ya know. (I had forgotton this. It explains the goofy accent, which I had also forgotten about.)