Saturday, August 21, 2010

Fuhnetiks at the Wawl Street Jurnl

I almost hate* to give Geoff Pullum another reason to rant about the offhand contempt with which mainstream journalists treat the vocabulary of language and grammar (see: passive voice).
But how could I resist this? In today's Wall Street Journal, the designer/editor team decided to represent "black swan" as a dictionary entry, pronunciation and all, apparently without consulting an actual dictionary. This is the pitiful result.

I'm no phonetics whiz, and in most discussions of pronunciation, a rough approximation is good enough for me. But you don't need to master the IPA to see a few problems here. The ones that stick out for me:

-- Black swan isn't a closed or a hyphenated compound, so that hyphen in "blak-swan" has no excuse to be there.

-- Black swan (for me, anyway) has equal stress on both words, like black tie or black ops. So if that misbegotten apostrophe was drafted to play to role of a stress mark, it too is superfluous. 

-- And finally, the graphic simply ignores the difference that every dictionary would indicate with a special symbol (or two): the difference between the a of black and the a of swan.  Here, they're shown as the same sound -- as if "black swan" rhymed with "black man." (Or, given the stress on the second word, with "black-MAN."

Long ago, once of my favorite designers replied to a complaint about a similar problem  by telling me the unorthodox typography was "a design element." But I notice the WSJ doesn't treat the big red + signs and % signs in its graphic as "design elements" -- no, those  mean just the same thing they always do in business journalism. But lexicographic symbols -- pffft, whatever, who cares.

*Almost. But not quite.

7 comments:

Chris Lott said...

Not to mention the rather limited definition...

Terribly Write said...

Don't they get extra credit for using "wreak" and not "wreck"?

Vireya said...

Black swans wreak havoc on financial markets? I better watch out next time I go for a walk in my local park, where all the swans are black.

arnie said...

They might have thrown in some etymology for the phrase while they were at it.

John Cowan said...

They do rhyme in Scottish English, where TRAP=PALM (under the influence of Scots, where PALM never developed at all).

Anonymous said...

To my knowledge, a hyphen has no value whatsoever in IPA, so even if ‘black swan’ were a closed or hyphenated compound, the hyphen would still have no place in the phonetics. Unless of course they’re simply using some other (obscure) phonetic alphabet, in which a hyphen has some not instantly decipherable function.

They also seem to be blissfully unaware of the distinction between the stress indicator ‹ˈ› and ‹’›, which indicates that the previous consonant is ejective. So unless they believe that ‘black swan’ in English contains an ejective hyphen … well …

THE self-proclaimed-die-expert said...

"Almost perfect...but not quite"(1)

Hukt ahn fahniks werkt fer me two. Thanks Jan.

I guess that is why at my university the WSJ was used posted on the mens room walls. "The Wall Street Urinal".


(1) thanks for the Mary Hume (Shel Silverstein) reference. I needed some poetry today.