Archive for Language and politics

Critical thinking

David Cragin, who teaches risk assessment at Peking University, mentioned to me that there is sharp controversy among his colleagues over how to translate the term "critical thinking" into Chinese.  Dr. Zheng, the professor who runs the program David teaches for, was never happy with the traditional translation of "critical thinking", that is, pīpàn shì sīwéi 批判式思维.

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A current neologism in Taiwan

Michael Cannings sent in this photograph taken outside Taiwan's parliament, which has been occupied by students for three days and is now surrounded by demonstrators:

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Twitter mwitter

"'Mwitter' to replace Twitter in Turkey?", Hurriyet 3/20/2014:

Only minutes after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan vowed to close down Twitter today, a new website was formed, either as a tribute from his followers or a mocking attempt from his critics: "Mwitter"

Erdoğan had earlier said in Turkish: "Twitter, mwitter kökünü kazıyacağız," translated into English as: "We’ll eradicate Twitter."

In colloquial Turkish, the "m" phrase cannot be translated easily into any language as it is not a regular lexical item. Its meaning (or the lack of meaning) depends on the intention of the speaker.

As one study explains:

"Semantically, reduplication with m-sound means 'and so on', 'such,' 'kind of,' 'sort of' depending on the meaning of the first part of the reduplicative form being ahead of m-insertion. [It] allows the speaker to give less than the amount of information requested, while still appearing cooperative. It indicates that the speaker does not wish to specify or elaborate, but instead appeals to the participant's common ground for inferring the intended meaning."

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Written Cantonese on a "Democracy Wall" at a University in Hong Kong

A Language Log reader in Hong Kong sent in the following photograph:

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Ambassador Entwistle and Lolo 1 on Wazobia

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No more Hong Kong, no more Tibet

The Encyclopaedia Britannica has begun to refer to Hong Kong as Xianggang, the Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM) pronunciation of the name.

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Erdogan's phone conversations

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been the prime minister of Turkey for 11 years. On Monday, someone posted on YouTube what purports to be recordings of a series of phone conversations between Erdoğan and his son, discussing how to hide a billion dollars or so in cash: "Başçalan Erdoğan'ın Yalanlarının ve Yolsuzluklarının Kaydı"= "Recording of Erdogan's lying and corruption". Here's an acted version of an English translation, from "Full transcript of voice recording purportedly of Erdoğan and his son", Today's Zaman 2/26/2014:

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Avoiding the goober

Eric Zorn, "The 'gubernatorial' war", Chicago Tribune 2/12/2014:

Does your eye stop and and stumble, as mine does, on such phrases as "the four Republican governor candidates"? Or "Governor candidate Bill Brady"?  

If so, you are a fellow casualty of the war on the word "gubernatorial," an admittedly odd, Latinate word that every four years I feel duty bound to remind readers comes from the Latin verb "gubernare" means to steer or lead.  

Consistency would demand that the state leader be the gubernor, not governor (from the Old French "governer"), or that we refer to the "governatorial race," but we don't.  

Instead we are adopting "governor candidate" and even — horrors! — "governor race" ("governor's race" seems OK, though) in order to avoid the goober.

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Is Cantonese a language, or a personification of the devil?

Whether Cantonese is a language or a dialect is a subject that we have touched upon many times on Language Log, e.g., "Spoken Hong Kong Cantonese and written Cantonese" (see especially the remarks in the second half of the original post) and "English is a Dialect of Germanic; or, The Traitors to Our Common Heritage ."

But now it has become a hot-button issue in China, especially in Hong Kong, where the government's Education Bureau recently made a monumental gaffe by declaring that Cantonese was not an official language of the Special Administrative Region:  "Education Bureau rapped over Cantonese 'not an official language' gaffe:  Claim Cantonese 'not an official language' leaves public lost for words."

Here's an article in Chinese on the uproar that followed the announcement of the Education Bureau that Cantonese is not an official language of Hong Kong.

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SOTU ngrams

Below is a guest post by Yuval Pinter.


Reading Mark Liberman's analysis of Obama's SOTU addresses versus other presidents', my thirst remained unquenched. Word-counts are fun, sure, but the real fun comes in when looking at longer phrases – two (bigrams) or three (trigrams) words long.

After waiting for it to be breakfast time in Philadelphia, I engaged in an experiment (Legal has advised me against explicit use of MYL's trademark phrase) to analyze the 228 addresses (found here) and see what Obama's favorite (and least-favorite) phrases are.

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SOTU plagiarism?

Dylan Byers, "Bush speechwriter: Obama plagiarized Bush", Politico 1/29/2014:

President George W. Bush's former speech writer said that President Barack Obama plagiarized his former boss in Tuesday's State of the Union address.

Speaking to Fox News's Megyn Kelly, Marc Thiessen, the lead writer on Bush's 2007 State of the Union address, said he found Obama's speech Tuesday night "eerily familiar."

"Barack Obama has gone from blaming George W. Bush to plagiarizing George W. Bush," Thiessen said. 

Thiessen then read phrases from the 2007 speech which focused on the theme "hope and opportunity."

"It was eerily familiar. There were lines like 'Our job is to help Americans build a future of hope and opportunity, a future of hope and opportunity begins with a growing economy, a future of hope and opportunity requires that all citizens have affordable and available healthcare, extending opportunity and hope depends on a stable supply of energy,' all of that came from the 2007 State of the Union from George W. Bush," Thiessen said.

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Obama's favored (and disfavored) SOTU words

Lane asked "It would be great if someone had time to find some truly Obama signature phrases, doing the math properly. I'd be curious to know what words he actually does use unusually often."

I have two classes to prepare for today, and a student study break to get ready for (bread and cheese, fruits and nuts, chips and dips, cakes and candies etc., but mostly cleaning up the living room…). So I don't have time to work on the "truly signature phrases" problem — that's a hard problem to solve on the basis of a sample as small as a few years of SOTU messages, anyhow.  But there's one thing that I do have time for: calculating the words (or rather, the lexical tokens) that are characteristic of Obama's SOTU messages in contrast to the other post-war SOTUs, against the background of all SOTUs since 1790.

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The evolution of SOTU pronouns

Following up on Sunday's "SOTU evolution" post, here's a quick glance at changes over time in the relative frequency of some classes of pronouns in State of the Union messages. Over the course of the 20th century, there's been a clear upward trend in the frequency of first and second person pronouns:

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SOTU evolution

In preparation for Tuesday's State of the Union address, I thought I'd take a look at the language of these addresses over the years. Texts are available at UCSB's American Presidency Project – I downloaded their texts and removed irrelevant mark-up .(Or rather, I wrote scripts to do all of this automatically — I believe that the results are generally correct but there are probably a few uncaught errors.)

There are lots of ways to approach this question. In today's post, I'll set the stage and look at a couple of simple word-frequency features, with more (and maybe more interesting) explorations to come later on.

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Plebgate: an overdue apology

It is time for Language Log to set things straight about the Right Honourable Andrew John Bower Mitchell MP. The story of what everyone thought had happened in London on 19 September 2012 was reported here (by yours truly) in this post and this follow-up. It involved (we all thought) a snooty and arrogant Conservative government minister and member of the House of Commons snarling words of class prejudice, in front of shocked independent bystanders, at an honest cop who was merely trying to enforce the laws that Parliament had ordained. The linguistic point of interest was that the nastiest of those words was alleged to be the noun pleb. Not the expressive expletive fucking: Mitchell never denied muttering something like I thought you guys were supposed to fucking help us when the police told him to push his bike out of Downing Street through a small pedestrian gate rather than ride it through the big one. No, the scandal was that a minister of the crown had used a contemptuous upper-class snob's term for the common people.

Language Log repeated the story that the British newspapers gloried in; but after 15 months of glacially slow police investigation costing around a quarter of a million dollars, yielding one prosecution, the story now looks very different. It appears the Right Honourable Andrew Mitchell was both right and honorable. He was framed by lying cops, and deserves an apology.

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