The pragmatics of ESP

As I was browsing some search results in Google Scholar, I came across a listing for a paper titled, "Communication and Community: The Pragmatics of ESP."

After reading the title, I asked myself, If you have ESP, why would you need pragmatics?

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Your English is not bad

Thought-provoking observations by a native speaker:

"Racism in Hong Kong: why ‘your English is very good’ is not a compliment, it’s actually very insulting:  An Australian of Chinese descent reveals why she is offended every time she is praised for her excellent English-language skills", by Charmaine Chan, SCMP Magazine (5/19/18)

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Office of Mayhem Evaluation

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Yanny vs. Laurel: an analysis by Benjamin Munson

A peculiar audio clip has turned into a viral sensation, the acoustic equivalent of "the dress" — which, you'll recall, was either white and gold or blue and black, depending on your point of view. This time around, the dividing line is between "Yanny" and "Laurel."

The Yanny vs. Laurel perceptual puzzle has been fiercely debated (see coverage in the New York Times, the AtlanticVox, and CNET, for starters). Various linguists have chimed in on social media (notably, Suzy J. Styles and Rory Turnbull on Twitter). On Facebook, the University of Minnesota's Benjamin Munson shared a cogent analysis that he provided to an inquiring reporter, and he has graciously agreed to have an expanded version of his explainer published here as a guest post.

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World disfluencies

Disfluency has been in the news recently, for two reasons: the deployment of filled pauses in an automated conversation by Google Duplex, and a cross-linguistic study of "slowing down" in speech production before nouns vs. verbs.

Lance Ulanoff, "Did Google Duplex just pass the Turing Test?", Medium 5/8/2018:

I think it was the first “Um.” That was the moment when I realized I was hearing something extraordinary: A computer carrying out a completely natural and very human-sounding conversation with a real person. And it wasn’t just a random talk. […]

Duplex made the call and, when someone at the salon picked up, the voice AI started the conversation with: “Hi, I’m calling to book a woman’s hair cut appointment for a client, um, I’m looking for something on May third?”

Frank Seifart et al., "Nouns slow down speech: evidence from structurally and culturally diverse languages", PNAS 2018:

When we speak, we unconsciously pronounce some words more slowly than others and sometimes pause. Such slowdown effects provide key evidence for human cognitive processes, reflecting increased planning load in speech production. Here, we study naturalistic speech from linguistically and culturally diverse populations from around the world. We show a robust tendency for slower speech before nouns as compared with verbs. Even though verbs may be more complex than nouns, nouns thus appear to require more planning, probably due to the new information they usually represent. This finding points to strong universals in how humans process language and manage referential information when communicating linguistically.

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Really weird sinographs, part 3

We've been looking at strange Chinese characters:

"Really weird sinographs" (5/10/18)

"Really weird sinographs, part 2" (5/11/18)

For a sinograph to be weird, it doesn't need to have 30, 40, 50, or more strokes.  In fact, characters with such large numbers of strokes might be quite normal and regular in terms of their construction.  What makes a character bizarre is when its parts are thrown together in unexpected ways.  On the other hand, characters with only a very small number of strokes might be quite odd.  Two of my favorites are the pair 孑孓, which are pronounced jiéjué in Modern Standard Mandarin and together mean "w(r)iggler; mosquito larva".

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Smart should check the OED

A couple of days ago, I wondered why modern English is reluctant to turn adjectives into verbs ("This towel kinds to your skin", 5/12/2018, and Laura Morland commented that "Universal verbing privileges would indeed be the kinder option." We were lamenting the loss of certain kinds of category-bending freedom, but Christopher Beanland wants us to have even less of it ("Smart knows that’s not English – how adland took a mallet to the language", The Guardian 5/14/2018):

It’s taken a millennium and a half for English to develop into a language as rich and complex as a character from your favourite multi-part Netflix drama series – and just a few years for the advertising industry to batter it into submission like a stained piñata at a child’s party.

Baffling slogans have become the new norm in adland. Perhaps Apple laid the foundations in 1997 with its famous Think Different campaign, but things have since gone up a notch: in 2010, Diesel blurted out perplexing offerings such as “Smart had one good idea and that idea was stupid”. Then came Zoopla with its “Smart knows” campaign. Now we’re informed by Ireland’s flag carrier that “Smart flies Aer Lingus”. Who are these people called Smart and how can we avoid sitting next to them on our next flight?

Today’s language-mangling ad campaigns run the greasy gamut from the somewhat confusing “Live your unexpected Luxembourg” to the head-scratching “Start your impossible”.

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The wonder of Cantonese particles

Rosalyn Shih has an entertaining and informative piece called "Let's Go Laaaaaaaa:  And learn Cantonese particles" in LARB China Channel (5/1/18)

Some highlights:

…In Singapore, particles have migrated to English, prompting the Quora thread “Why do Singaporeans say lah at the end of every sentence?”

It seems that the more southern the Chinese-speaker, the more particles he or she might use. Citing various studies from 1924 to 1994, Language Log notes the estimates of Cantonese particles are anywhere from 30 to 206….

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Cool slave / guy / tofu / whatever

Nathan Hopson spotted this "Cool Guy" t-shirt on Facebook:

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This towel kinds to your skin

From my hotel bathroom in Miyazaki:

This towel makes a lot of bubbles and kinds to your skin.
So, you have a pleasant bath time.

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Really weird sinographs, part 2

Some of the commenters to the first part of this series seem to be making the case that many of the characters chosen by Scott Wilson for his SoraNews24 article are not so weird after all.  I beg to differ.  I think that all of the characters he chose are truly strange, awesomely odd.  Even those who are skeptics admit that the loopy and curvy ones are unusual.  But I think that Wilson has done a good job of picking out weird characters from Morohashi, and as noted in the o.p., there are thousands more that might be thought of as weird.

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On the propinquity of Vietnamese and Sinitic

Several comments to this post raised the issue of the closeness of Vietnamese and Cantonese:

"Cantonese is not the mother tongue of Hong Kongers" (5/4/18)

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"Bombs of explosive facts"

From E.W. Scripture's 1925 obituary in Nature for L'abbé P.-J. Rousselot:

In 1897, G. Paris and Breal succeeded in founding a laboratory of experimental phonetics at the College de France ; it was annexed to the chair of comparative grammar (Breal) and Rousselot was made its director. In opening the laboratory, Prof. Breal did not hesitate to declare that " the moment has arrived when one could no longer think of phonetics as anything else than experimental " ; he proclaimed that from now onward" it would be necessary to collect facts instead of announcing a priori principles."

In this heroic age, the Abbe and his pupils worked with insatiable ardour at inventing apparatus, developing methods, and collecting facts. They had to face the opposition of the whole world of linguists, grammarians, and philologists, but with ready pens they fired their bombs of explosive facts at the army of opinion and guesswork.

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