Language in the News, Names, Recommended Reading

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles–an example of preferred adjective order in English

My inner nerd is really going to make an appearance in this post.

The other day, I caught a short preview of the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie. Since I was an impressionable child when “TMNT” first appeared, I’m rather attached to the original concepts, both the cartoon version and the movies. Kids who watched TMNT picked their turtle soul mates without the help of a Buzzfeed quiz (mine was Donatello). We had the action figures. You get the picture.

But there was something in this particular preview that caught the attention of the linguistics nerd part of my brain. Here’s the preview, via YouTube, and the part I’m talking about starts at :10 seconds. There’s a short transcript below the video…


April O’Neil (Megan Fox): “Ninja…Mutant…Turtle…Teenagers?”

Donatello (Jeremy Howard): “Well when you put it like that it sounds ridiculous.”


Clearly a joke, since the basic concept of the main characters is bizarre no matter how you describe them. But it struck me as true that there’s something more fluid about saying Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I was concerned that maybe that’s a result of being introduced to the name when I was young. But then I found a article that talks about the preferred order of adjectives in English.

To summarize: while in English, it’s not incorrect to use adjectives in any particular order, there does seem to be a preference, and some linguists have broken these adjectives down into regions. Here they are in order:

General Opinion or Quality

Specific Opinion or Quality







One professor emeritus of linguistics and philosophy, Barbara Partee, also “observes that the modifiers most likely to sit right next to nouns are the ones most inclined to serve as nouns in different contexts.”


So when we take      Teenage   Mutant     Ninja                                           Turtles,

We have                      Age             Origin*      Noun in other context        Plural Noun


The joke version         Ninja         Mutant     Turtle       Teenagers

We have                         Noun         Origin       Noun         Plural Noun


It seems that the official name is a better fit, according to the suggested explanation for adjective preference. And phonetically, the official name is easier to pronounce, due to the separation of the two T’s by the M and N, in the same order as they appear in the alphabet, and with the tongue in same place to first make the N and then the T sound. If you say it out loud slowly, you’ll see what I mean.

Of course, the joke version in the preview is an example of how the language can intentionally be changed, which according to the article can require more cognitive focus. At the very least it makes us pay close attention to the phrasing, and at the most it can change the whole meaning of the phrase.

Who knew seven seconds of a movie preview could say so much about word order?


*Not sure if “Mutant” should be considered a Specific Quality (in which case it’s out of order) or Origin—weigh in by leaving a comment below!


Language in the News, Names

Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow-pocalypse!

Scene from today's typical lake effect snowfall
Scene from today’s typical lake effect snowfall

This morning my backyard had less than an inch of snow. Currently it has about 8 inches. In Buffalo New York, this is a nuisance. But in Washington, DC, where the threat of snow is enough to cause widespread closures of schools and federal offices, the same amount of snow would be a snow-pocalypse, snow-maggedon, a snow-tastrophe!!!

And this reminded me of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, also known as “linguistic relativity.”


Well, one of the most widely recalled (and ultimately disproven) examples of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is the idea that Eskimos have over 100 words for snow. They don’t. But while the languages we speak may not limit our understanding of the world, they do influence it (possibly in our saving habits). And our own understanding of certain words or ideas definitely depends on things like culture and geography.

So when I call something a “snowstorm,” my understanding of what that means may be radically different from someone from say, Virginia, and is probably closer to what someone from Michigan means when they say “snowstorm.”

But while the amount of snow may be different, our reactions to the situation are probably pretty similar: concern over traveling safely, adding time to a commute, etc.

What’s more interesting to me are cases where a language changes your perspective based on how it explains the world. An example I found early in my study of linguistics talks about how certain languages that assign genders to objects may influence preferences for gendered personifications. An example in the article talks about how there was a preference for assigning a female voice to forks because the French word for fork is feminine. Or how certain languages are “geocentric” rather than “egocentric” when it comes to giving directions. This means that instead of using the subject or object as ground zero, using terms like “in front of” or “behind” or “to your left,” these languages use the cardinal directions (north, east, south, west).

These kinds of articles and experiments remind us that it’s important to recognize that there are different ways of experiencing the world and our place in it, and then we can have a greater appreciation for the diversity and arbitrariness of language.

Branding, Names

Bagels & Branding: A workshop summary

To kick off  Marketing, PR and Advertising Industry Week 2012, the Georgetown Career Center hosted a workshop titled “Bagels and Branding” this morning, with guest speaker Rebecca Cassidy. The focus of this workshop was ‘Personal Branding,’ a concept quite familiar to those of us in ProSem!

‘Personal Branding’ or ‘Self Branding’ is the idea that you, as a person, need to create a consistent “brand” for yourself. Your brand incorporates who you are (your values & personal history), what you do best (skills & talents), and the career you are pursuing (what YOU can bring to a company or position).

The workshop began with a general inquiry into what we recognized as brands, and then a few definitions for the term “brand.” The idea of branding as two-way street was presented, where it’s not only how a company wants you to think of them or their product, but what you as a customer actually think of them. With this concept in mind, several companies and individuals were discussed, where we compared our perceptions of companies with what their websites portrayed. We then moved to individuals as brands (example: Oprah), and how they attempt to control their audiences’ perceptions of them. For example, a quick comparison of Oprah to Martha Stewart brought out connections to book clubs and TV shows (Oprah), or jail time (Martha Stewart).

We then moved on to a deeper investigation into how to develop our own personal brands, by keeping the following goal in mind:

Your self perception should match others’ perceptions of you.

We discussed the whys and hows of personal branding. For example, self brands help to create a relationship with someone you don’t know yet, but in order to be successful, all parts of the personal brand should be honest.

Next, the concept of the Marketing Mix, or the 4 P’s, came up. For a personal brand, the 4 P’s apply as follows:

  • Product: Who you are and what you do. What makes you unique.
  • Price: How much do you cost?
  • Place: Where do you work best? Online? In a group?
  • Promotion: What does your branding toolkit look like? (more on this below)

Interestingly,  I had never heard of the 4 P’s until this morning, when happened to come across it in a blog titled 5 New Rules for a Winning Brand Launch that I read on my way to campus (thank you LinkedIn News Feed!) The 4 P’s are briefly mentioned under a section titled “Look at Old Fundamentals With Fresh Eyes,”aka re-framing!

After a few quick exercises where we started the process of defining our personal brands, and the suggestion that we ask family, friends, and acquaintances to provide 3 adjectives they think describe us (with the added suggestion that we find a way to do this anonymously to get more honest answers), the workshop finished with what we should include in our Branding Toolkit (everything from a resume and LinkedIn profiles to wardrobe to–my personal favorite–a portfolio). And the most important thing to keep in mind?

Be Consistent!


*A little linguistic note as well: I found it interesting that the title for this workshop was “Bagels and Branding” rather than “Branding and Bagels.” This could be a subtle means of highlighting the free breakfast portion, which, considering the 9am start time, probably meant a higher turn-out. I love that even the NAME of this workshop can be analyzed!


Language in the News, Names

Regionalisms in the WSJ

As a linguist, I was VERY excited to see the article discussing regionalisms in the Wall Street Journal this morning.

Frog Hair to Woolies: Dust Bunnies by 173 Other Names

There is even a special mention of the Roger Shuy case I use in my description of Forensic Linguistics here.

Check it out, and feel free to  share your favorite regionalism. Not to age/place myself, but I was excited to see both “skeevy” (I’m an Upstate New Yorker by birth) and reference to the BuffyVerse (Joss Whedon has a fantastic way with words!)



“Thursday Thoughts”-Name Explanation

I’ve decided to give the actual “blogging” section of my blog a formal name: Thursday Thoughts. The reason for this is to encourage (read: force) me to post something at least once a week on, you guessed it, Thursdays.

This doesn’t mean that I will JUST post on Thursdays, since cool language-related topics seem to pop up quite a bit, but it DOES mean that something new will appear once a week. At least, that’s the plan!