Archive for Semantics

"Bāphre bāph!" — my favorite Nepali expression

As a Peace Corps volunteer in eastern Nepal (Bhojpur) from 1965-67, I became highly fluent in spoken Nepali.  I even dreamed in Nepali.

My Peace Corps buddies and I learned Nepali in Columbia, Missouri by the total immersion method, which I describe and demonstrate in this post:  "Learn Nepali" (9/21/16).

See also my comments to "Alien encounters" (9/15/16), especially this one, #7-8, and the links embedded therein.

I became enamored of many Nepali words and phrases, but my favorite of all is "bāphre bāph!", which corresponds roughly to "Wow", "OMG", etc. in English.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (27)

More people have thought about this than I have

Alexis Wellwood et al., "The Anatomy of a Comparative Illusion", Journal of Semantics 8/3/2018:

Comparative constructions like More people have been to Russia than I have are reported to be acceptable and meaningful by native speakers of English; yet, upon closer reflection, they are judged to be incoherent. This mismatch between initial perception and more considered judgment challenges the idea that we perceive sentences veridically, and interpret them fully; it is thus potentially revealing about the relationship between grammar and language processing. This paper presents the results of the first detailed investigation of these so-called ‘comparative illusions’. We test four hypotheses about their source: a shallow syntactic parser, some type of repair by ellipsis, an incorrectly-resolved lexical ambiguity, or a persistent event comparison interpretation. Two formal acceptability studies show that speakers are most prone to the illusion when the matrix clause supports an event comparison reading. A verbatim recall task tests and finds evidence for such construals in speakers’ recollections of the sentences. We suggest that this reflects speakers’ entertaining an interpretation that is initially consistent with the sentence, but failing to notice when this interpretation becomes unavailable at the than-clause. In particular, semantic knowledge blinds people to an illicit operator-variable configuration in the syntax. Rather than illustrating processing in the absence of grammatical analysis, comparative illusions thus underscore the importance of syntactic and semantic rules in sentence processing.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (38)

"Misunderstand that …", "pessimistic that …"

In late June Lila Gleitman noticed a case of "A is pessimistic that S" meaning that A considers it likely that S will happen/turn out to be the case, and A considers S to be an unwanted outcome. Her example was "I am more pessimistic than I was two weeks ago about the trade war spinning out of control."

We agreed that we would both find it impossible to say "I’m pessimistic that the trade war will spin out of control", but differed on "pessimistic about": in my dialect, but not Lila’s, "A is pessimistic about a Republican victory in the fall" is OK, meaning that A fears that the outcome will be the one she doesn’t want — that there will be or that there won’t be, depending on her point of view.

Lila, by the way, said she could use “pessimistic that” in the case of losing hope in a good outcome: “I am more  pessimistic than I was two weeks ago that the prices of stocks will rise.” But I don't think I could use "pessimistic that" there either. (So the original speaker and Lila and I seem to have three different patterns of judgments about "pessimistic that".)

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (16)

Fifth Third Bank

Wikipedia explains that the Fifth Third Bank's name "is derived from the names of both of the bank's two predecessor companies: Third National Bank and Fifth National Bank, which merged in 1908". But despite the fact that "[t]he bank operates 1,154 branches and 2,469 automated teller machines in Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Florida, Tennessee, West Virginia, Georgia, and North Carolina", I've managed to travel extensively in those states without ever encountering the name, until this building presented itself to us on our way to dinner last night in Toledo OH. The name seems odd at first but I guess it's memorable as a result.

Are there any other examples of names combining two ordinal numbers as the result of a merger, like the "Second Third Presbyterian Church"?

Comments (51)

Seatbelts and dogs

I'm now at the Station Biologique de Roscoff for the Ecole thématique Big Data & Speech. On the bus from Morlaix to Roscoff, there were several copies of this sign:

However, the bus had no seatbelts installed.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (9)

"I could no longer deny that we were not …"

Many times over the years we've noted cases where piled-up modals and negations  leave writers (and readers) uncertain about whether a sentence might not turn out to mean the opposite of what it was meant to. Here's another example, contributed by GD — John Albrecht, "One year on", 12/31/2017:

At about this time one year ago “the penny dropped” for me as an auctioneer and I could no longer deny that auctioneers who dealt in ivory were not significantly contributing to maintaining value in this material and consequently, the ongoing slaughter of endangered species.

In this case, the tally seems clearly to come out wrong — to convince yourself, try replacing "deny" with "maintain the view", or replacing "were not significantly contributing" with "were significantly contributing".

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (5)

The semiotics of fruit salad

By "fruit salad", here I am referring to the military slang expression for a servicemember's display of medals and ribbons on a dress uniform. In this post, I will be focusing only on the racks of ribbons worn on the left chest.

Defense Secretary James Mattis was recently in China and met with a number of ranking generals. With his keen eye, Paul Midler noticed that the ribbon racks on the chests of the Chinese officers were mostly identical. He writes: "Curious that Chinese officers wear a 'ribbon rack' that repeats many ribbons five times, and that among officers there is often little variety."

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (17)

Corpora and the Second Amendment: Responding to Weisberg on the meaning of "bear arms" [Updated, and updated again]

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

The Originalism Blog has a guest post, by David Weisberg, taking issue with the conclusion in Dennis Baron's Washington Post op-ed that newly available evidence of historical usage shows that in District of Columbia v. Heller, Justice Scalia misinterpreted the phrase keep and bear arms. That's an issue that I wrote about yesterday ("The coming corpus-based reexamination of the Second Amendment") and that I'm going to be dealing with in a series of posts over the next several weeks.

One of Weisberg's arguments concerns a linguistic issue that I'm planning to address, and I think that Weisberg is mistaken. At the risk of getting out ahead of myself, I want to respond to Weisberg briefly now, with a more detailed explanation to come.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (36)

Cool slave / guy / tofu / whatever

Nathan Hopson spotted this "Cool Guy" t-shirt on Facebook:

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (16)

Mongolian priests and bugs, with a note on the Japanese word for "bonze"

An anonymous correspondent asked:

Are these actually related words, or just homonyms?

p. 127 of  Jack Weatherford, Genghis Khan and the Quest for God: How the World's Greatest Conqueror Gave Us Religious Freedom:

Male shamans were treated with cautious respect, but they evoked suspicion and even disgust. As one saying put it, “the worst of men become shamans.” The word boo, Mongolian for “shaman,” is part of a cluster of words with loathsome connotations: foul, abominable, to vomit, to castrate, an opportunistic person without scruples; it is also the general term for lice, fleas, and bedbugs. 28

His footnote 28: бѳѳ (бѳѳδийн), to vomit (бѳѳлжих), to castrate (бѳѳрлѳх), an opportunistic person without scruples (бѳѳрѳний хн), and the basic term for lice, fleas, and bedbugs (бѳѳс). Хvлгийг муу жоро болох. A Modern Mongolian-English Dictionary, ed. Denis Sinor (Indiana University, Uralic and Altaic Series, vol. 150, 1997),

Someone else asked whether Japanese boosan / bōsan 坊さん ("monk") were somehow related.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (27)

Niggling nitpicking in Hong Kong bureaucratese

Did China "take back" (shōuhuí 收回) Hong Kong from Great Britain or did it "recover" (huīfù 恢復) the former colony?  Even though representatives of the Chinese government have used the former expression in the past, they now insist that there was no "taking back", only "recovering" what was always China's.

On July 1, 1997, was there a “handover of sovereignty” (zhǔquán yíjiāo 主權移交)?  Despite the fact that this phrase was widely used by diplomats to describe what took place between the governments of Britain and the PRC, the Protocol Division of the Hong Kong government is now attempting to retroactively excise this offending language from official publications, including school textbooks.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (3)

"If I don't get into it not wanting to win…"

During today's episode of "Angelo Cataldi and the Morning Gang" on WIP sports talk radio, there was an interview with Doug Pederson, the coach of the Philadelphia Eagles.

One exchange caught my linguistic (as opposed to sports fan) attention:


 

Angelo Cataldi: Doug, did you ever think this would happen to you?
Doug Pederson:  I did.
Angelo Cataldi: You did.
Doug Pederson: I did.
I did.
I did, I didn't think it was going to happen in year two
but
you know, Angelo, listen, i- if- if-
if I don't get into this business
not wanting to win the Super Bowl,
I'm going to go do something else,
you know?

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (7)

What it is is what it is

Jay Livingston sends a compendium of tautologies from The Wire:

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (15)