Ask Language Log: "Strange Writing"

TJJ from Napa CA writes:

Dr. Dan Jurafsky at Stanford suggested I contact you.  I have a statue I purchased years ago from a Humane Society fundraiser sale.  It is made of some sort of stone and has a rabbit on one side and some strange writing on the bottom.  It looks like it might be Bengali or Gujarati.  I'm curious to know what language it is and what it says but have no idea how to find out.

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Pitch in Korean dialects

From Krista Ryu:

Recently on the internet, there was an interesting photo posted that pointed out the unique feature of Southeastern dialect of Korean:  tones (some scholars call it pitch, as it is different from the tones of languages such as Mandarin).

The internet post had the following photo and a question: "is it true that Seoulites (people from Seoul / users of standard Korean) cannot pronounce these distinctly?"


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Bad words on WeChat: go directly to jail

With over 980 million monthly active users, WeChat is an extremely popular messaging app in China.  However, in the Orwellian climate of the PRC, you had better watch your language carefully, lest you get whisked off to jail without trial.  Here are some words that can result in your incarceration:

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Seven double-plus-ungood words and phrases

Lena H. Sun and Juliet Eilperin, "CDC gets list of forbidden words: fetus, transgender, diversity", Washington Post 12/15/2017:

The Trump administration is prohibiting officials at the nation’s top public health agency from using a list of seven words or phrases — including “fetus” and “transgender” — in any official documents being prepared for next year’s budget.

Policy analysts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta were told of the list of forbidden words at a meeting Thursday with senior CDC officials who oversee the budget, according to an analyst who took part in the 90-minute briefing. The forbidden words are “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based” and “science-based.”

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Blues in Moore flat

I've previously noted that Donald Trump sometimes introduces semi-chanted passages into his political oratory — see "Trump's prosody"; "Trumpchant in B flat"; "Tunes, political and geographical".

Here's another example, from his 12/8/2017 campaign rally for Roy Moore in Pensacola:

So get out and vote for Roy Moore!

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Linguists and change

In recent years, a rapid and important cultural change in the understanding of gender has been taking place in American society and beyond. A Harris poll from this year, reported in a Time Magazine cover story, found that “20% of millennials say they are something other than strictly straight and cisgender, compared to 7% of boomers”. At the University of Pennsylvania, many staff members specify preferred pronouns in their email signatures, and introductory meetings for first-year students often start by asking everyone present to specify their pronouns. Many schools, including Harvard, ask undergraduates to choose their pronouns upon registration. Several states have added the option of X as a third gender category on official government documents. At the same time, gender identity has become a polarizing issue in political debates, and gender non-conforming people are more at risk of violence and suicide. We offer this summary for readers who haven’t been in the midst of this change themselves or had a front row seat on it, as some of us have.

Cultural change, personal vulnerability, generational difference, political hostilities, and changes in language use with grammatical implications, all in play. What could possibly go wrong?

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Tricolons

Roy Moore's 12/13/2017 non-concession speech  started out this way:

We are indeed in a struggle to preserve our republic, our civilization, and our religion.

And he goes on in the same vein, with another rhetorical tricolon:

This particular race was watched not only by the people of this state, but by the entire nation, and many around the world.
Why? Because I believe the heart and soul of our country is at stake.

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On when listening is better than talking: A call for contemplation and empathy

The following is a reply from Emily M. Bender, Natasha Warner and myself to Geoff Pullum’s recent posts (A letter saying they won, 12/4/2017; Courtesy and personal pronoun choice, 12/6/2017).


Respected senior linguist Geoffrey K. Pullum recently used the widely-read platform of Language Log to remark on the fact that his grammatical tolerance of singular they only goes so far (A letter saying they won, 12/4/2017). For Pullum, singular they cannot be used in reference to a personal name; example sentences such as Kimi said theyi were going to the store are ungrammatical for him. This fact is not in dispute, nor is the fact that this is a salient grammaticality judgment for Pullum. What is in dispute, however, is the appropriateness of a series of choices that Pullum has made in reporting this grammaticality judgment. Those choices have clearly hurt people. The following is an effort to explain the hurt that these choices have caused and to give Pullum — and everyone from his defenders to those who don’t see what all the fuss is about — another opportunity to respond with contemplation and empathy as opposed to defensiveness and continued disrespect.

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"You can't help but not be worried"

Here's Lulu Garcia-Navarro in discussion with Marvin Odum, Houston's chief recovery officer, about whether the Federal government will actually come through with the funds promised for disaster recovery after last summer's floods ("Houston's Recovery", Weekend Edition Sunday 12/10/2017). He describes returning from Washington without a clear idea of whether the promises will be honored:

Garcia-Navarro: You came back worried, though.
Odum: You can't help but not be worried.

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Ask Language Log: with + nonfinite clause?

A staff member at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, responsible for providing guidance for journalists on pronunciation, terminology, grammar, and usage, has asked me about "a particular usage of with, which seems to be doing the job of a conjunction." He wonders whether the construction in question is correct English or not. He supplies these attested examples (all already published by ABC news, so one thing we know is that on this matter the usage train has left the station):

  1. "Same-sex marriage could be legal by the end of the day with Federal Parliament inching closer to a final vote." (found here)
  2. "Peter Creigh has asked for a non-publication order on his name to be lifted, with Newcastle Local Court told he was ready to have his identity revealed." (found here)
  3. "President Donald Trump introduced the plan alongside two Republican senators in the White House, with officials saying the plan was based in part on the Australian and Canadian immigration models." (found here)

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Administrative reductions

A couple of days ago, I heard an interesting talk by Juliet Stanton, who proposed that variation in stress on the -at- in (English) words in -ative depends in a gradient way on the total duration of stressless material between -at- and the word's earlier main stress. Thus -at- stressing should (and does) become more frequent through a series like palliative, speculative, investigative, legislative.

It occurred to me to wonder whether there might be an effect in the other direction as well. That is, in a word like administrative (where dictionaries and my intuition agree that /ədˈmɪnᵻstrətɪv/ and /ədˈmɪnəˌstreɪdɪv/ are both possible), perhaps the phonetic duration of the intervening sequence would vary according to Stanton's principle.

I chose administrative for a test because a quick check of the LDC's published collection of conversational telephone speech turned up more than 70 instances of that word. But the OED turns out to be right that the version with stressed -at- predominates in the U.S. — 70 out of 73 instances in this set. And there were some other kinds of pronunciation variation — reductions — that make my idea hard to test in any case.

However, those reductions themselves are worth a look.

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The Australian people have stood up

In recent months, one after another, instances of Chinese interference in Australian politics have come to light.  After a series of outstanding investigative reports in the media, finally Australia is starting to push back against Chinese encroachment:

"Laws on foreign influence just the beginning in fight against Chinese coercion", Peter Mattis, Sydney Morning Herald (12/7/17).

Most conspicuously, earlier today, the Prime Minister has spoken out, and in Mandarin, no less:

"Malcolm Turnbull declares he will 'stand up' for Australia in response to China's criticism", Caitlyn Gribbin, ABC (12/9/17).

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A virus that fixes your grammar

In today's Dilbert strip, Dilbert is confused by why the company mission statement looks so different, and Alice diagnoses what's happened: the Elbonian virus that has been corrupting the company's computer systems has fixed all the grammar and punctuation errors it formerly contained.

That'll be the day. Right now, computational linguists with an unlimited budget (and unlimited help from Elbonian programmers) would be unable to develop a trustworthy program that could proactively fix grammar and punctuation errors in written English prose. We simply don't know enough. The "grammar checking" programs built into word processors like Microsoft Word are dire, even risible, catching only a limited list of shibboleths and being wrong about many of them. Flagging split infinitives, passives, and random colloquialisms as if they were all errors is not much help to you, especially when many sequences are flagged falsely. Following all of Word's suggestions for changes would creat gibberish. Free-standing tools like Grammarly are similarly hopeless. They merely read and note possible "errors", leaving you to make corrections. They couldn't possibly be modified into programs that would proactively correct your prose. Take the editing error in this passage, which Rodney Huddleston recently noticed in a quality newspaper, The Australian:

There has been no glimmer of light from the Palestinian Authority since the Oslo Accords were signed, just the usual intransigence that even the wider Arab world may be tiring of. Yet the West, the EU, nor the UN, have never made the PA pay a price for its intransigence.

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