Unmasking Slurs

I'm sympathetic to many of the arguments offered in a guest post by Robert Henderson, Peter Klecha, and Eric McCready (HK&M) in response to Geoff Pullum's post on "nigger in the woodpile," no doubt because they are sympathetic to some of the things I said in my reply to Geoff. But I have to object when they scold me for spelling out the word nigger rather than rendering it as n****r. It seems to me that "masking" the letters of slurs with devices such as this is an unwise practice—it reflects a misunderstanding of the taboos surrounding these words, it impedes serious discussion of their features, and most important, it inadvertently creates an impression that works to the advantage of certain racist ideologies. I have to add that it strikes me that HK&M's arguments, like a good part of the linguistic and philosophical literature on slurs, suffer from a certain narrowness of focus, a neglect both of the facts of actual usage of these words and the complicated discourses that they evoke. So, are you sitting comfortably?

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Response to Pullum on slurs

This is a guest post by Robert Henderson, Peter Klecha, and Eric McCready in response to Geoff Pullum's post of July 10. My only role was offering in advance to post a reply if the authors would like me to. I'm a good friend of Geoff Pullum and a friend of the authors. What follows is theirs.

We were quite surprised to read the LL post by Geoff Pullum of July 10. In this post, GP discussed the suspension of Tory MP Anne Marie Morris for using the phrase “n****r in the woodpile” at an event held at the East India Club. After her use of this phrase was recorded and publicized, she was suspended by the Tories for what the Financial Times described as a racist remark. According to GP, this punishment was excessive, as the remark in question was not racist; he proceeds “reluctantly” to defend Ms. Morris, as the idiom in question was merely “silly.” While we offer no comment on the appropriateness of the specific punishment Ms. Morris received, we do find this characterization problematic on both moral and empirical grounds, together with many other commentators on social media, and we want to suggest that the author should have been (much) more careful when dealing with such an important topic.

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Rescued debate

Yesterday Sharon Klein wrote to ask about the 2010 debate on Language and Thought hosted by The Economist:

Some colleagues in other departments (notably in philosophy) have been asking to talk about the hypothesis, linguistic relativism, and the actual research around the issues. While I can (and have begun to) collect relevant papers for a casual reading group (a good way to reach out…), I remembered that the debate provided a very helpful clearinghouse for the discussion that had developed in this area.

But she found that the Economist's intro page on this debate  leads only to an debate archive site that doesn't include this one; and the links in old LLOG posts are now redirected to the same unhelpful location.

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Helpful Google

The marvels of modern natural language processing:

Michael Glazer, who sent in the example, wonders whether Google Translate has overdosed on old Boris and Natasha segments from Rocky and Bullwinkle:


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Annals of redundancy and masochism

Two gems from Chris Brannick via Facebook (the first is from the site of the Immortality Pills in Guangzhou and the second is from the Langham Place Hotel, also in Guangzhou):


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Annals of poor translation

Below are two pages from the instruction book for a small point and shoot digital camera (the original in Chinese and the corresponding page translated into English). As you can see, the language display has a couple of strange choices.


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Serious earworm infection

I had heard "Let Me Love You" by D J Snake featuring Justin Bieber many times on the radio and was intrigued by several things:

1. Who / what is D J Snake?

2. In what way is the super famous Biebs "featured" on a record by a D J named Snake?  In other words, what was the nature of their collaboration?

3. Above all, who was making that manic, beyond yodeling sound in the background (was it Biebs? D J Snake? somebody else? a machine / instrument?), and how were they making it?

So I went looking for a music video in hopes that I might be enlightened.

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Incrimination by presupposition? The Goldstone e-mail

Paul Kay offered the following item for discussion around the water cooler at Language Log central:

Here's an excerpt from the initial email from Rob Goldstone to Donald Trump, Jr.:

​"This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its  government’s support for Mr. Trump – helped along by Aras and Emin."​

Is it worth noting the use of the possessive determiner​? I guess it's generally accepted that possessive determiners involve  some kind of existence presupposition, though I'm aware that there's a lot more to that subject than I know. In the current instance, the presupposition would be that there is in fact Russian government support for Trump. …

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North America on the Belt and Road?

I've spent the past couple of days at the "Belt and Road Forum for Language Resources", organized by the "Beijing Advanced Innovation Center for Language Resources". There are other recently-founded Beijing Advanced Innovation Centers for "Future Education", "Genomics", "Soft Matter Science and Engineering", "Intelligent Robots and Systems", "Big Data and Brain Computing", "Future Visual Entertainment", and no doubt many others.

As for the "Belt and Road Forum" part, this is part of the "Belt and Road Initiative" (discussion e.g. here), which Christine Lagarde said "is about connecting cultures, communities, economies, and people, and about adding new economic flavors by creating infrastructure projects that are based on 21st-century expertise and governance standards". The "Belt" seems to be a set of land-based transportation projects, while the "Road" is the "Maritime Silkroad", all centered on China as illustrated here:

One thing that puzzled me about this workshop was its thematic image of an artistically pixelated globe  centered over the North Atlantic, roughly at the latitude of Philadelphia.

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Dialect maps get surreal

Everybody seems to enjoy sharing dialect maps displaying the boundaries of different American regionalisms. So it was only a matter of time before this enticing form of data visualization got satirized. On Twitter, Josh Cagan takes it in an absurdist direction.

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Plum > apricot and wine > brew: the language of poetry and painting

[This is a follow up to "Preserved wife plum" (7/12/17), after which there ensued a vigorous and enlightening discussion on the terminology for plums, apricots, pastries, and so forth.]

My wife was born in Shandong in 1936, but fled from the Japanese with her family to Sichuan before she was one year old, and she spent the next eleven years of her life in Sichuan, before fleeing once again with her family, this time from the Chinese Communists, to Taiwan.

One of the last things Li-ching did before passing away in 2010 was write her childhood memoirs in Hanyu Pinyin (see here, here [three items], and here).  At this moment, I do not recall if she mentioned it in her memoirs, but one of her fondest recollections of Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan where she and her family lived (it was also the wartime capital of the Republic of China — now on Taiwan) was the làméi 臘梅 / 腊梅 (Chimonanthus fragrans / praecox).  In English, the làméi 臘梅 is referred to as wintersweet, Japanese allspice (despite the attractive name, it is not edible), calyx canthus, and mistakenly — but still quite commonly — as "wax plum" (look it up on Google Images under this name for pretty pictures of the blossoms).   In Japanese this plant is called rōbai 蝋梅, although it used to be written 臘梅 and 蠟梅 (nowadays it is normally written in kana alone:  ろうばい · ロウバイ).

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Polysemous Pejoratives

Geoff Pullum suggests that the flap over an MP’s use of nigger in the woodpile is overdone:

Anne Marie Morris, the very successful Conservative MP for Newton Abbot in the southwestern county of Devon, did not call anyone a nigger.…
Ms. Morris used a fixed phrase with its idiomatic meaning, and it contained a word which, used in other contexts, can be a decidedly offensive way of denoting a person of negroid racial type, or an outright insult or slur. Using such a slur — referring to a black person as a nigger — really would be a racist act. But one ill-advised use of an old idiom containing the word, in a context where absolutely no reference to race was involved, is not.

Oh, dear. As usual, Geoff's logic is impeccable, but in this case it's led him terribly astray.

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Tao and Taoism

Yesterday's NYT has an article by Javier C. Hernández titled "China’s Religious Revival Fuels Environmental Activism" (7/12/17).  It's a long article, filled with a lot of New Age, ecological phraseology that is uncharacteristic of the usual political, military, and economic discourse of the antireligious PRC.  I was drifting along, not paying too much attention to the details of what it said, but this short paragraph — quoting a Taoist monk named Xuan Jing — caught me up short:

As he sipped tea, he jotted down Taoist teachings: “Humans follow the earth, the earth follows heaven, heaven follows Taoism, Taoism follows nature.”

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