Archive for Semantics

Really weird sinographs, part 4

A video introducing 70 obscure Chinese characters (shēngpì zì 生僻字):

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (6)

"Falling rocks" versus "fallen rocks"

[This is a guest post by an anonymous correspondent.]

We traveled last week from our home in Baltimore out to see our daughter in Ohio, and while en route in Pennsylvania, my husband and I noticed something. At various points along the turnpike, we saw signs that noted "Falling Rocks" and others that noted "Fallen Rocks." It was after dark as we drove, so we couldn't see what the hillsides looked like, but we found it unusual to see both signs, which appeared to be in free variation. We didn't see any rocks in the road, and happily for us, none came rolling down as we passed.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (26)

Of knots, pimples, and Sinitic reconstructions

A couple of months ago, we talked about gēda 疙瘩, which is one of those very cool, two syllable Sinitic words, neither of whose syllables means anything by itself (i.e., not only is it a disyllabic lexeme, it is also a disyllabic morpheme).  Furthermore, gēda 疙瘩 is highly polysemous, with the following meanings:  "pimple; knot; swelling on the skin; lump; nodule; blotch; a knot in one's body or heart (–> hangup; problem; preoccupation)".

See "Too hard to translate soup" (9/2/18).

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (14)

Whose values?

The subhed of this opinion piece made me do a double take — Bari Weiss, "A Massacre in the Heart of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood: The values that drove Robert Bowers to murder my neighbors are the ones we cherish — and will continue to live by", NYT 10/27/2018.

At least, that's how the piece originally ran:

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (17)

An xkcd for Geoff Nunberg

Comments (22)

Metaphorical limitations

A few years ago, I noticed an apparent boom in "Peak X" (see also "'Peak X' abides" and "Peak friend"), and reported concerns that the peak bubble might have burst ("Peak peak has apparently passed"). But a scan of recent news stories suggests that the peak X construction has established itself solidly in the journalistic lexicon. In addition to the obvious things like "peak foliage", "peak leaf season", "peak fire season", and "peak earnings", we can read about  "peak plastic", "peak crazy", "peak absurdity", "peak patent", "peak Fortnite", "peak grunge", and "peak First Take yelling".

In one of those posts back in 2014, I wondered why "there's no 'valley X' or 'trough X' corresponding to 'peak X'". And for that matter, why no "summit X"?

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (21)

Nurses say yes and no

Question #1 on this November’s ballot in Massachusetts concerns a proposed law
to limit the number of patients that can be assigned to a nurse at any one time.
More than $15 million dollars have already been spent on campaigning about this
question. Lawn signs on both sides of the debate abound in the state:

Now, inquiring minds might wonder: what is it, do nurses say yes or do they say
no?

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments off

"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 (26)

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 (37)

"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)