Archive for Dictionaries

Corpora and the Second Amendment: Heller

[An introduction and guide to my series of posts "Corpora and the Second Amendment" is available here.]

Before I get into the corpus data (next post, I promise), I want to set the stage by talking a bit about the Heller decision. Since the purpose of this series of posts is to show the ways in which the corpus data casts doubt on the Supreme Court's interpretation of keep and bear arms, I'm going to review the parts of the decision that are most relevant to that purpose. I'm also going to point out several ways in which I think the Court's linguistic analysis is flawed even without considering the corpus data. Although that wasn't part of my plans when I began these posts, this project has led me to read Heller more closely than I had done before and therefore to see flaws that had previously escaped my notice. And I think that being aware of those flaws will be important when the time comes to decide whether  and to what extent the data undermines Heller's analysis.

The Second Amendment's structure

As is well known (and as has been discussed previously on Language Log here, here, and here), the Second Amendment is unusual in that it is divided into two distinct parts, which the Court in Heller called the "prefatory clause" and the "operative clause":

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Corpora and the Second Amendment: Weisberg responds to me; plus update re OED

[An introduction and guide to my series of posts "Corpora and the Second Amendment" is available here.]

Two quick updates.

First, David Weisberg has replied to my response to his post on the Originalism Blog, but he doesn't address the point that I made, which was that I disagreed with his framing of the issue.

Weisberg also notes that I didn't respond to the second point in his original post (which dealt with a purely legal issue), and he goes on to say this:

Many people (and I think Goldfarb is one) believe the correct sense of the 2nd Amend is this: “The right of the people to keep and bear Arms, for use in a State’s well regulated Militia, shall not be infringed.” But, if that is what the framers meant, why isn’t that what they wrote? I think that is a very fair question to ask, and it merits an answer. After all, 5 words would have been saved. Will corpus linguistics provide an answer?

I'm not going to offer any views in this series of posts about how I think the Second Amendment as a whole should be interpreted; I'm focusing only on Heller's interpretation of the phrase keep and bear arms. So I'm not going to say whether Weisberg is correct in his speculation about what I think on that score. Weisberg then asks why, if the framers had intended to convey the meaning he posits, they didn't write the amendment in those terms. Although Weisberg thinks that is "a very fair question to ask," I don't think it's a question that's relevant to the issue as the Court framed it in Heller, which had to do with how the Second Amendment's text was likely to have been understood by members of the public, not with what the framers intended. Nevertheless, I'll say that the question to which Weisberg wants an answer is not one that can be answered by corpus linguistics.

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Really weird sinographs

Scott Wilson has written an entertaining, and I dare say edifying, article on "W.T.F. Japan: Top 5 strangest kanji ever 【Weird Top Five】", SoraNews24 (10/6/16) — sorry I missed it when it first came out.  Wilson refers to the "Top 5 strangest kanji", but he actually treats nearly three times that many.  The reason he emphasizes "5" is so that he can stick with his theme of W.T.F., cf.:

Scott Wilson, "W.T.F. Japan: Top 5 most difficult kanji ever【Weird Top Five】", SoraNews24 (8/4/16)

Scott Wilson, "W.T.F. Japan: Top 5 kanji with the longest readings【Weird Top Five】", SoraNews24 (4/20/17)

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Webster’s Second and Webster’s Third: Editors going against stereotype

One of the most well-known pieces of lexicographic history is the controversy that greeted the publication of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary. Whereas the predecessor of W3, Webster’s Second New etc., had been regarded as authoritatively prescriptive, W3 was condemned in the popular media for its descriptive approach, the widespread perception of which can be boiled down to “anything goes.” (For the details, see The Story of Webster’s Third by Herbert Morton and The Story of Ain’t by David Skinner.)

I recently came across two articles that seem to be largely unknown but deserve wider attention— one by the General Editor of W2 (Thomas Knott), and the other by the Editor-in-Chief of W3 (Philip Gove). Each article is notable by itself because it fleshes out the author’s attitude toward usage and correctness, and does so in a way that undermines the stereotype that is associated with the dictionary each one worked on. And when the two articles are considered together, they suggest that despite the very different reputation of the two dictionaries, the authors’ attitudes toward usage and correctness probably weren’t far apart.

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OED on the language of sexual and gender identity

On Twitter, Katherine Connor Martin (Head of U.S. dictionaries at Oxford University Press) writes:

In the latest @oed update, dozens of entries relating to sexual and gender identity were revised, the first phase of a project to revisit this rapidly changing segment of the English lexicon.

She links to the lengthy Release Notes, of which the following is just the introduction:

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Ask Language Log: Looking up hanzi for ignoramuses

From Mark Meckes:

I'm a regular Language Log reader, completely ignorant of Chinese languages.  I was just wondering whether there exist worthwhile online tools to help someone like me figure out the meaning of something written only in hanzi.  (The question is occasioned by my looking at a package of tea given to me by a Chinese student; the writing on the package is mostly hanzi, with a little English and no pinyin.)  I'm perfectly competent to use Google Translate and similar tools (and know how much skepticism to approach the results with) for the last stage of the process.  But starting from written hanzi on a physical object, I first need some way to translate that image into either pinyin, Unicode, English, or something equivalent to one of the above — and something that relies on no knowledge of the meaning or pronunciation of the characters, or knowledge of the structure of Chinese characters in general.  Do you have any suggestions?

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Annotating the First Page of the First Navajo-English Dictionary

Don't miss Danielle Geller's remarkable, moving personal essay in The New Yorker, "Annotating the First Page of the First Navajo-English Dictionary." Here's how it starts:

The first, incomplete Navajo-English Dictionary was compiled, in 1958, by Leon Wall, an official in the U.S. government’s Bureau of Indian Affairs. Wall, who was in charge of a literacy program on the Navajo reservation, worked on the dictionary with William Morgan, a Navajo translator.

’ąą’: “well (anticipation, as when a person approaches one as though to speak but says nothing)”

I could begin and end here. My mother was a full-blooded Navajo woman, raised on the reservation, but she was never taught to speak her mother’s language. There was a time when most words were better left unspoken. I am still drawn to the nasal vowels and slushy consonants, though I feel no hope of ever learning the language. It is one thing to play dress-up, to imitate pronunciations and understanding; it is another thing to think or dream or live in a language not your own.

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Learning languages is so much easier now

If you use the right tools, that is, as explained in this Twitter thread from Taylor ("Language") Jones.

Rule number 1:  Use all the electronic tools at your disposal.

Rule number 2:  Do not use paper dictionaries.

Jones' Tweetstorm started when he was trying to figure out the meaning of shāngchǎng 商场 in Chinese.  He remembered from his early learning that it was something like "mall; store; market; bazaar".  That led him to gòuwù zhòngxīn 购物中心 ("shopping center").  With his electronic resources, he could hear these terms pronounced, could find them used in example sentences, and could locate actual places on the map designated with these terms.

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Cantonese is not dead yet

Not by a long shot, judging from several recent articles in the South China Morning Post:

"American professor speaks up for Cantonese to preserve Hong Kong’s heritage: Robert Bauer from HKU is writing a Cantonese-English dictionary that will include colloquial terms, believing language represents cultures" (Heyling Chan, 5/21/17)

"Hong Kong vloggers keeping Cantonese alive with money-spinning YouTube channels:  While many fear Cantonese may be in decline, for Hong Kong’s online stars it has opened a gateway to thousands of followers and lucrative careers" (Rachel Blundy, 6/10/17)

"Use Cantonese as a tool to extend Hong Kong’s influence, academic urges:  Chinese University linguist says better teaching of the native language is the vital first step in raising the city’s profile in Beijing’s trade initiative" (Naomi Ng, 5/4/17)

"In Vancouver’s ‘Cantosphere’, a sense of responsibility and an identity under siege:  Artists and academics in Vancouver are carving out a space to examine both the fate of Hong Kong and the diaspora identity" (Ian Young, 5/19/17)

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Cantonese teachers influenced by Mandarin

[This is a guest post by Silas S. Brown]

It seems a few native Cantonese speakers employed in the production of Cantonese language courses are quite happy to read out Mandarin vocabulary with Cantonese pronunciation, rather than the actual native Cantonese versions of the words, and I can't help wondering why.

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Green's Dictionary of Slang goes online

Today, Green's Dictionary of Slang (GDoS for short) launches its online version. This is excellent news, coming more than five years after Jonathon Green published the print edition of his exhaustive three-volume reference work. As I wrote in the New York Times Book Review at the time,

It's a never-ending challenge to keep up with the latest developments in the world of slang, but that is the lexicographer’s lot. Green plans to put his dictionary online for continuous revision, which is indeed the direction that many major reference works (including the O.E.D.) are now taking. In the meantime, his monument to the inventiveness of speakers from Auckland to Oakland takes its place as the pièce de résistance of English slang studies. To put it plain, it’s copacetic.

Despite some tough sledding along the way, GDoS now sees the light of day online. Below is Jonathon Green's announcement. (For more, read the coverage in Quartz, and also see the dictionary's blog.) The good news is that headwords, etymologies, and definitions are freely available through online searches, while the full entries, with voluminous citations for each sense of each word, are available for an annual subscription fee.

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"Uptalk" in the OED

The latest quarterly update to the online Oxford English Dictionary includes a metalinguistic term all too familiar to Language Log readers: uptalk, defined as "a manner of speaking in which declarative sentences are uttered with rising intonation at the end, a type of intonation more typically associated with questions." It's high time that the OED created an entry for the word, given that it has had a significant media presence (for better or for worse) ever since it burst on the scene in 1993.

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Cantonese word list and parser

This morning I received an announcement from the The Linguistic Society of Hong Kong (LSHK) that its long awaited Jyutping word list is now online.  Access to the word list is available here.

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