12 of 12 for November 2008

13 Nov

Considering I have the sleeping habits of a typical college student, I was wide awake when the clock struck midnight on the 12th of the month. In fact, I was doing laundry.


Heading down the hall to put my clothes in the dryer. The fluorescent lighting and lack of windows eliminate any reminders that I’m defying the natural sleep cycle. Instead, I’m thinking about how ’80s that carpeting is.

I got to the laundry room about a minute after my clothes finished washing, and someone had already taken them out of the washing machines and put them on top of the dryers. I hate when that happens. She was still there, too, so it was rather awkward. Of course, I hate being in the opposite situation and having to handle other people’s undergarments. She was probably more embarrassed than I was annoyed.

Every time I do laundry here, I’m thankful of how cheap it is compared to in England. There, I spent the equivalent of about $6.50 on every single load (not including the cost of detergent).


As exciting as laundry is, I still had to wait for my clothes to dry. I returned to my apartment to prepare for a meeting with my Phonology professor later in the day. For our final project in the course, we have to write and present a paper on a phonological topic of our choosing. I knew I wanted to do something with French, but unfortunately I chose one of the most ridiculously complicated elements of French phonology: the schwa. I snapped the above photo around 3:30am as I attempted to make some sense out of the articles I was reading (but my brain wasn’t functioning very well at that hour). The articles came from the proceedings of a linguistics conference last year in France dedicated entirely to the schwa. I can’t believe I missed it.

The schwa, or “e muet,” is typically represented in French orthography as the letter “e.” However, its pronunciation is optional — but guided by certain phonological conditions (or, more specifically, Optimality Theory constraints, at least under my analysis). The schwa is normally pronounced in order to break up unacceptable consonant clusters. For example, in standard French, one would pronounce “une table propre” as [yn tablə propr] — leaving out the schwa in “table” would create a string of four consonants ([blpr]), which doesn’t jive too well with French phonology.

The main premise behind my paper was to study cross-dialectal differences in the behavior of French schwa. For example, in Southern French dialects, the schwa is very often pronounced, even where it doesn’t prevent clusters. The phonology of these dialects (derived from Occitan) seems to disprefer codas in general (in favour of consonant-vowel syllable structure). So in the above example, the word-final schwa in “propre” would be pronounced as well. I also considered looking into Canadian French, which doesn’t seem to mind clusters as much as European dialects. In the above example, however, Canadian French has a different strategy for resolving the clusters altogether, yielding [yn tab prop] — Canadian French deletes word-final liquids in clusters.

I won’t get into the details as to why this is an incredibly overwhelming topic, but let’s just say that schwa isn’t as simple as it sounds. Prosody and rhythm appear to play a role, for example… and schwas behave very differently if they’re word-final or not.


Anyway, after realizing that my brain had had as much schwa as it could handle, I went to bed for a meager five hours. I took the above photo on my way to campus in the morning, at the intersection of Jefferson and Hoover – the intersection that I have probably crossed about a million times so far to get to and from campus. (LA isn’t very pedestrian friendly, if you weren’t aware). My least favourite thing about the intersection (and the entire USC campus) is the insane bicyclists who go a million miles per hour or talk / text on their cell phones while riding. Making matters worse, this year they created diagonal crosswalks through the intersection, so there’s a deadly “X” in the middle where you’re almost guaranteed to trapped in a crossfire of bicycles.

Have I mentioned that there’s a lot of concrete in LA?


I first headed to the library to print out some papers for the meeting with my Phonology professor, but I accidentally jammed the printer by attempting to print double-sided (there was supposed to be a warning sign!!!!!!!!!). Anyway, I didn’t have time to re-print but a nice Australian girl gave me a refund, even though I couldn’t remember exactly how much the print job cost (I think I gained a few cents).

Anyway, that anecdote has nothing to do with the above photo, which I snapped on my way to class (which I was already running late for). There was some international food festival going on in Alumni Park. That photo was taken near one of USC’s numerous fountains, looking towards Bovard Auditorium (featured in season 2 of 24!)


I turned around to get this shot from the other side, looking towards Doheny Library (probably one of the nicest buildings on campus). And yes, people were wearing shorts (myself included) and flip-flops. After a week of genuinely fall-like weather, the high topped at about 80 degrees yesterday. The forecast says 91 for Saturday.

I hate this weather.


Got to my Japanese Syntax class a few minutes late because of the printer trouble. My professor is great, but I’m always sleepy and distracted in the class. Probably because I’m not really a syntax person. As intriguing as it can be, I don’t foresee myself researching bound variable anaphora (BVA) after my final paper.

Here, the professor was explaining the difference between sentences like “It seems that John likes Sue” vs. “John seems to like Sue.” In both cases, John is actually the subject of “like” but in the second example the subject is “raised.” I could probably explain a lot more about it, but to avoid boring anyone I suggest looking it up on your own if you’re really intrigued. And yes, this does have to do with Japanese syntax.


Italian class was next. The class is a mixed bag… on the one hand, I love speaking Italian and I enjoy the ease of the class, but on the other hand, it’s really too easy. Here, the professor was going over the imperfect subjunctive, which is essentially the first new grammar we’ve learned all semester. Kind of sad. But at least I have to use my brain a bit more, since nobody uses the imperfect subjunctive in spoken French AFAIK.

I think the most frustrating part of the class is the language barrier between the professor and the other students. Most of my classmates seem to have a hard time understanding anything she says, and vice versa. Unfortunately, I can understand both of them perfectly and I get insanely annoyed by how slow the class moves as a result. And people asking for the translations of obvious cognates like “incoraggiare”…grrr…

Pensavo che italiano 3 fosse più difficile!


My graduate Phonology class was next, but I didn’t have a good opportunity to discretely snap a photo. I waited until after class to capture my fellow undergrad linguistics majors here in the “Teal Lounge.” I think they were all feeling lethargic after stuffing themselves on doughnuts from the department’s weekly “Tea Time.”

I should also point out that linguistics majors are inherently weird people. And awesome.

After meeting with my professor to talk about schwas, she expressed paranoid concern about being on campus after dark (I mean, there has been a lot of violence in the neighbourhood, but not on campus at 5pm…) and so I accompanied her towards her car. We talked about grad schools and she naturally suggested I look for one with good phonologists… among my top choices, Ottawa and Georgetown seem to have a few.


On the way back to my apartment. This concrete pedestrian walkway is usually crowded with students going to and fro between the residences and campus, in addition to the local skater punks and foul-mouthed school children. While this is probably the safest possible block off of campus, I can’t help but be paranoid when I’m walking late at night in this area. I live in the ghetto.


Just to show you how ghetto it is. These are some houses adjacent to my dorm. It’s hard to find any houses in LA without fenced yards and barred windows. I know I rag on LA all the time, but it really is an awful, awful place. 🙂


I did spot these cute cats in one of the ghetto yards. Unfortunately, the flash seems to have transformed them into demon cats.


Back in the apartment. Back on the computer. What percentage of my day do I spend in front of a computer screen? A ridiculous percentage, that’s what. I was back to preparing for another meeting, this one with my Honors Thesis advisor. I’m presenting my research on New Hampshire dialects at the graduate students’ workshop in December, so I really have to get into gear with my project.

The map above is taken from the Atlas of North American English, showing the “cot”/”caught” merger in New England. The two words are pronounced the same in northern New England (and eastern Massachusetts), while they are noticeably destinct in southern New England. Interestingly, my parents, who were born fifteen miles apart, were also born on either side of the isogloss.

The other major isogloss in the region, which separates Eastern New England from Western New England, is rhoticity – eastern New England has historically been “r-less” (vocalization of post-vocalic /r/), but this is rapidly changing. Anyway, I’ll write more on this subject in a future post… after I’ve finished my paper.

One month and I’m out of LA forever.


2 Responses to “12 of 12 for November 2008”

  1. squamloon 15 November 2008 at 07:04 #


    Loved it. I’ve always enjoyed pronouncing the schwa at the end of poetry verses and song lyrics.

    Cool to see your classes—is your Italian professor cute?

    And I do know of one person who uses the imparfait du subjonctif in his everyday speech: Jean-Marie Le Pen.

  2. Megan 21 November 2008 at 00:48 #

    Still really jealous you’re going to Paris.

    If you were in Leavey and you were talking to Fiona she isn’t Australian! 🙂

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