Archive for Semantics

From “barbarian” to “very”

Earlier this week, I wrote a post titled “‘Little Man’ the eating machine” (5/22/17), in which I pointed out that “Man” here does not mean “(hu)man” or “male human”, but that it signifies “(southern) barbarian”, with extended meanings of “rough; reckless; fierce; rude; unreasoning; unruly; bullying”.  I also noted that this mán 蛮 has another set of meanings:  “quite; rather; somewhat; very”.

In the sixth comment to the post, liuyao wrote:

I was hoping VHM would do a linguistic/philological analysis of 蛮 in the sense of “very”. Given that it was originally a derogatory term for “barbarians” in the south (possibly Austroasiatics that have long been displaced or assimilated), how did it come about that the southern topolects (or when they speak their variants of Mandarin) have this character or word for “very”? Are there alternative characters for this morpheme?

I will now attempt to answer all of liuyao’s questions.

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Yes indeed

Mythili Sampathkumar, “Donald Trump and Mike Pence approval ratings hit new low in latest Fox News poll“, The Independent 5/26/2017:

Voters polled were also asked “do you think America’s best days are ahead of us or behind us?” A majority – 62 per cent – said yes, they are.

[h/t Michael Glazer]

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Funerarily lost

BIYI has written a very clever article titled “The Culture of sàng: a Generation Lying-down?” in China Buzz Report (Elephant Room, 5/7/17).  It begins with a little Mandarin lesson:

The character 丧 is a polyphone in mandarin Chinese. When it is pronounced sāng, it loosely translates to funeral or mourning. When as sàng, it could be referring to either losing certain things or people (“丧失”), or a conglomeration of negative emotions such as feeling depressed, angry, disappointed and vexed.

And the sàng culture we are talking about here really takes both meanings: it is, very vaguely, the idea that you’ve lost something and are feeling horrible about it.

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Pronominal reference to the arbitrary dog

Following Bean‘s guest post about being scorned by an 8-year-old child for not using singular they when it was appropriate, Language Log now presents the first evidence (to my knowledge) of a newspaper abandoning the usual use of it to refer to animals, and instead using singular they for an unknown arbitrary animal. This is from an article in the Metro (a free UK daily) on what to do if you find someone’s dog close to death because it has been locked in a car on a hot day; I boldface the pronouns of interest:

Get the dog out of the car and move them to a shaded, or cooler area. Then, douse the dog with cool water and let them drink small amounts of it. Make sure the water is cool but not cold, to avoid shock.

If the dog is not displaying signs of heatstroke, let them rest while you establish how long they were in the car, and make a note of the vehicle’s registration.

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I (don’t) doubt that the letter is fake

Somebody just sent me a note that begins, “I don’t doubt that the letter is fake…”.

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Sinological suffering

Since I became a Sinologist in 1972, hardly a day has passed when I didn’t spend an hour or two vainly searching for a character or expression in my vast arsenal of Chinese reference works.  The frustration of not being able to find what I’m looking for is so agonizing that I sometimes simply have to scream at the writing system for being so complicated and refractory.

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Misunderestimation of the month

Scottish parliament to seek new independence vote despite UK government rebuff“, Reuters 3/22/2017:

Holding a non-binding referendum would be damaging, argues Stephen Tierney, Professor of Constitutional Theory at Edinburgh Law School, because it would not provide certainty in a highly divisive situation.  

“The central importance of commonly agreed rules and a neutral referee in a situation of deep disagreement when the stakes are high cannot be under-estimated,” he said.

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If we have learned nothing in this election

From Allison Stanger, “Understanding the Angry Mob at Middlebury That Gave Me a Concussion“, NYT 3/13/2017 [emphasis added]:

Students are in college in part to learn how to evaluate sources and follow up on ideas with their own research. The Southern Poverty Law Center incorrectly labels Dr. Murray a “white nationalist,” but if we have learned nothing in this election, it is that such claims must be fact-checked, analyzed and assessed. Faulty information became the catalyst for shutting off the free exchange of ideas at Middlebury.

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Decoding political attitudes

I was initially baffled by the political stance of “John Q. Esq.”, who submitted this NYT comment:

Having simultaneously benefited from Obamacare and despised Obama and his party for bringing it to them, I have absolutely no doubt what-so-ever that the low information voters who voted for the Republican Congress and Trump will enthusiastically turn out to vote for them again in 2018 and 2020, respectively, while angrily blaming Obama and Democrats for the loss of healthcare that the GOP has stripped them of. The vicious cycle will continue in our broken democracy – this I am sure of.

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What a woman can’t do with their body

Mark Meckes noticed a tweet about an interview with Emma Watson, who was being discussed in this Language Log post, and mentioned it in a comment thereto. It was completely off topic (and thus violated the Language Log comments policy), but I felt it was too interesting to be left languishing down there in a comment on a post about preposition doubling, so I’m repeating it here, where it can have its own post:

If you think @EmmaWatson is a hypocrite, maybe consider you shouldn’t be telling a woman what they can and can’t do with their own body.

Two occurrences of singular they (they and their), with the phrase a woman as antecedent!

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Subsective adjectives and immigration

An important rallying cry and usage distinction made by allies of undocumented workers in the current cultural battle over immigration in the United States is Elie Wiesel’s assertion above: “No human being is illegal.” In the quote, Wiesel gives examples of the kinds of adjectives that he feels can denote properties of people (fat, skinny, beautiful, right, and wrong). On the other hand, calling a person ‘illegal’, he says, is a contradiction in terms.

Here’s a more elaborated statement of the idea, quoted from this website 

When one refers to an immigrant as an “illegal alien,” they are using the term as a noun.  They are effectively saying that the individual, as opposed to any actions that the individual has taken, is illegal.  The term “illegal alien” implies that a person’s existence is criminal.  I’m not aware of any other circumstance in our common vernacular where a crime is considered to render the individual – as opposed to the individual’s actions – as being illegal.  We don’t even refer to our most dangerous and vile criminals as being “illegal.” 

Now because syntax is my actual job, I am honor-bound to point out that the term ‘illegal alien’ is a noun phrase, not a noun, and furthermore, that “using a term as a noun” does not mean “using it to refer to a person, place or thing,” which I think is what the author above may be trying to say. But that quibble aside, we can see the idea. Laws criminalize actions, not people. Hence only someone’s actions, not their very existence, can be illegal.

What are the linguistic underpinnings of the intuition that using the term illegal alien implies that a person’s existence is illegal? I think it derives from an important distinction in types of adjectival meanings that I’ve learned about from the work of my Language Log colleague Barbara Partee. Different types of adjectives license different patterns of inferential reasoning.

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On the overt verbal expression of romantic love as a modern habit

In a comment to this post, “A trilingual, biscriptal note (with emoji)” (2/5/17), liuyao remarked,

Interesting that 愛 to mean (romantic) love might be a modern invention. A search in Dream of the Red Chamber (which is regarded as Beijing Mandarin in 18th century) reveals that all instances of it are in fact “to like” (something or someone). 愛吃的 = (what he) likes to eat; 不愛唸書 = doesn’t like to read books/study.

liuyao’s observation is so noteworthy that I promised to write a separate post on ài 愛 — herewith I am delivering on that promise.

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The craven feminine pronoun

The Times Literary Supplement diarist who hides behind the initials “J.C.” makes this catty remark (issue of January 6, 2017, page 36) about Sidney E. Berger’s The Dictionary of the Book: A Glossary of Book Collectors:

“Predictions were that the Internet would do away with dealers’ catalogs and it is true that many a dealer has gone from issuing catalogs to listing her whole stock online.” Bookselling and book collecting are among the world’s stubbornly male pastimes — deplorable, no doubt, but less so than the use of the craven pronoun throughout The Dictionary of the Book (Rowman & Littlefield, $125).

J.C. (who, Jonathan Ginzburg informs me, is widely known to be an author, book dealer, and bibliophile named James Campbell) is objecting to the use of she as a gender-neutral pronoun. And you can just guess that a snooty writer in TLS who quibbles about other people’s grammar choices would hate singular they. J.C. would probably regard it as “abominable”, the way Simon Heffer does. Which can only mean that he advocates use of the traditional practice of he as the gender-neutral 3rd-person singular pronoun, the one that The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (CGEL) calls “purportedly sex-neutral he (see pp. 491–493).

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