Archive for Semantics

Stress, emphasis, pause, and meaning in Mandarin

In "Mandarin Janus sentences" (11/4/17), there arose the question of whether duōshǎo 多少 ("how many") and duō shǎo 多少 ("how few") are spoken differently.  I'm very glad that, in the comments, Chris Button recognizes that Sinitic languages can have stress.  (The same is doubtless true of other tonal languages).

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Mandarin Janus sentences

Here are two Chinese sentences that seriously mess with your mind, since they can also mean the opposite of what they seem to say:

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Semantics at the Supreme Court

“What is the difference between ‘reasonably necessary’ and ‘substantial need’?” asked Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito (see this story in the New York Times). “I have been racking my brain trying to think of something that it is reasonably necessary for me to obtain but as to which I do not have the substantial need. And I can’t think of an example.”

Several of the court’s more liberal justices disagreed, saying that “reasonably necessary” connoted matters that a reasonable lawyer with finite resources would try to pursue.

On the outcome there hangs the issue of whether death row inmates like Carlos Manuel Ayestas in Texas will get legal aid. A federal appeals court in New Orleans, which oversees cases from Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, says there must a “substantial need” for the money, and denied funds to Ayestas. He challenged the denial.

So don't ever say there is no practical importance to the work semanticists do as they try to identify truth-conditional differences between terms of broadly similar meaning.

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GA

One of my favorite Chinese words is GANGA (pronounce as in "Lady Gaga", but put a nasal at the end of the first syllable).  It is so special and has had such a deep impact upon me since I began learning Chinese half a century ago that, in this post, I shall refer to it simply as "GANGA", in capital letters only, except when discussing its more precise pronunciation, derivation, meaning, and written representation in Chinese characters.  Referring to this unusual word as "GANGA" is meant to emphasize the iconic quality it has for me personally, in the sense that its nature reveals many verities about Sinitic languages and Chinese writing.

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Incrimination by presupposition? The Goldstone e-mail

Paul Kay offered the following item for discussion around the water cooler at Language Log central:

Here's an excerpt from the initial email from Rob Goldstone to Donald Trump, Jr.:

​"This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its  government’s support for Mr. Trump – helped along by Aras and Emin."​

Is it worth noting the use of the possessive determiner​? I guess it's generally accepted that possessive determiners involve  some kind of existence presupposition, though I'm aware that there's a lot more to that subject than I know. In the current instance, the presupposition would be that there is in fact Russian government support for Trump. …

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Polysemous Pejoratives

Geoff Pullum suggests that the flap over an MP’s use of nigger in the woodpile is overdone:

Anne Marie Morris, the very successful Conservative MP for Newton Abbot in the southwestern county of Devon, did not call anyone a nigger.…
Ms. Morris used a fixed phrase with its idiomatic meaning, and it contained a word which, used in other contexts, can be a decidedly offensive way of denoting a person of negroid racial type, or an outright insult or slur. Using such a slur — referring to a black person as a nigger — really would be a racist act. But one ill-advised use of an old idiom containing the word, in a context where absolutely no reference to race was involved, is not.

Oh, dear. As usual, Geoff's logic is impeccable, but in this case it's led him terribly astray.

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"Just ghost"

The verb "ghost" to mean "leave a social event without announcing one's departure" has apparently been around for a while, but I wasn't aware of it until a couple of weeks ago when I happened upon this 7/3/13 article in Slate by Seth Stevenson:

"Don’t Say Goodbye:  Just ghost."

Because I have often felt awkward and embarrassed about wanting to leave a social gathering before bidding adieu at least to the hosts, but not finding a suitable moment to say goodbye, I immediately became enamored of this new (to me) verb because it sanctioned an impulse that I was previously unable to act upon.

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Renewal of the race / nation

Jamil Anderlini in the Financial Times (6/21/17), "The dark side of China’s national renewal", writes:

To an English-speaking ear, rejuvenation has positive connotations and all nations have the right to rejuvenate themselves through peaceful efforts.

But the official translation of this crucial slogan is deeply misleading. In Chinese it is “Zhonghua minzu weida fuxing” and the important part of the phrase is “Zhonghua minzu” — the “Chinese nation” according to party propaganda. A more accurate, although not perfect, translation would be the “Chinese race”.

That is certainly how it is interpreted in China. The concept technically includes all 56 official ethnicities, including Tibetans, Muslim Uighurs and ethnic Koreans, but is almost universally understood to mean the majority Han ethnic group, who make up more than 90 per cent of the population.

The most interesting thing about Zhonghua minzu is that it very deliberately and specifically incorporates anyone with Chinese blood anywhere in the world, no matter how long ago their ancestors left the Chinese mainland.

“The Chinese race is a big family and feelings of love for the motherland, passion for the homeland, are infused in the blood of every single person with Chinese ancestry,” asserted Chinese premier Li Keqiang in a recent speech.

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Assari > ashali, a Japanese mimetic loanword in Taiwan

I say "in Taiwan", because this word, 阿沙力, is both in Taiwan Mandarin, where it is pronounced āshālì, and in Taiwanese, where it is pronounced at3sa55lih3.

This is a very common expression in Taiwan, where it is used as the name of restaurants, for instant noodles, beverages, and other products, but most of all to describe someone's personality.

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Defense counsel for the victim?

A truly Freudian slip in a story in the UK conservative newspaper the Daily Telegraph, speaking volumes about what goes wrong with so many rape and sexual assault prosecutions:

Camille Cosby, wife of the entertainer, issued a statement, read out by an associate on the court steps in a dramatically-delivered speech.

She attacked the judge as biased, and said the defence were "totally unethical."

The defense? Andrea Constand and the other brave women who have accused Bill Cosby (they say he drugged them so he could enjoy sexual gratification without their consent) were not in the dock, and the lawyers arguing their case were not the defense team, but the prosecutors. The Telegraph journalist, Harriet Alexander, has apparently reversed the roles of the accused's defense and the district attorney.

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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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