Archive for Semantics

Only America First

A question asked on Facebook:

Okay, linguists who work on focus sensitive particles – can you tell me what on earth this means? "From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first" I couldn't bear to listen so I don't know where the focal accent was, but no possibility makes sense. 'only AMERICA first'? since there's only one thing first, isn't the 'only' redundant? 'only America FIRST'? as opposed to second? please do enlighten…. Of course this is hardly the most important thing to be worried about today….

I listened, and even transcribed, so here's the quote:


From this day forward,
it's going to be only
America First.
America First.

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"Dog" in Japanese: "inu" and "ken"

This post intends to take a deep look at the words for "dog" in Japanese, "inu" and "ken", both written with the same kanji (sinogram; Chinese character): 犬.

I will begin with some basic phonological and etymological information, then move to an elaboration of the immediate cause for the writing of this post, observations from colleagues, and a brief conclusion.

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"Despite an initial reluctance to withhold comment"

Michelle Kosinski and Kevin Liptak, "Gloves-off White House creates rift between Obama and Trump teams", CNN 12/16/2016:

Donald Trump's dismissal of US intelligence about Russian election meddling has deeply alarmed the White House, prompting a new and combative approach to the President-elect that's caused rifts between the incoming and outgoing administrations. […]

In his briefings, [White House Press Secretary Josh] Earnest has resumed tying Trump to Russia, a staple of Obama's own campaign stump speech.

"It was the President-elect who, over the course of the campaign, indicated that he thought that President Putin was a strong leader," he said on Monday, continuing with a litany of examples meant to demonstrate a tight alliance with Moscow. "His campaign didn't make any effort to obscure this."

Despite an initial reluctance to withhold comment on Trump's cabinet picks, he's tied the President-elect's selection as secretary of state, ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, to Trump's approach to Russia. [emphasis added]

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Lawyers should learn linguistics, part infinity

Ken Adams, "Courtesy of the High Court of England and Wales, A Reminder that Ambiguity Is Best Left to Experts", Adams on Contract Drafting 12/11/2016:

Here’s the language at issue (emphasis added):  

Without prejudice to the provisions of paragraph 3 if all of the Conditions have not been discharged in accordance with this Schedule by the Longstop Date, then either Asda or Dooba may rescind this Agreement by giving to the other not less than ten working days written notice to that effect.

So can the Agreement be rescinded if "all of the Conditions have not been discharged" with broad scope of negation, meaning that "it's not the case that all of the Conditions have been discharged", i.e. at least one Condition has not been discharged? Or should we construe the clause with narrow scope of negation, requiring that every one of the Conditions must have failed? The deputy judge reasoned as follows:

The subject of the clause is “all of the Conditions”; the characteristic which the subject is required to have is “have not been discharged”. As a matter of strict Boolean logic, the relevant characteristic is a negative one, which must affect all of the Conditions in order to fall within the clause. […]

I agree with Asda that the formula “if all … have not …” is sometimes used to mean “if not all … have”, but I do not accept that this has become its primary meaning.

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A new English word

Since I began the study of Chinese languages half a century ago, there's one word that I have found very useful and versatile, but extremely hard to translate into English, so in this post I'm going to propose that we might as well just simply (gāncuì 乾脆 = the previous five English words) borrow it into English and be done with it.  That word is the almighty, inimitable, the one and only:  lìhài!

lìhài 厉害 (simplified) / 厲害 (traditional)

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Pell-mell

When, about 40 years ago, I first read the "Basic Annals of Xiang Yu (232-202 BC)" ( Xiàngyǔ běnjì 項羽本紀) in the The Scribe's Records (Shǐjì 史記, ca. 94), the foundation for the 24 official dynastic histories that followed it, I was struck by this sentence:   `Yúshì Xiàng wáng dà hū chí xià, Hàn jūn jiē pīmí, suì zhǎn Hàn yī jiāng.'「於是項王大呼馳下,漢軍皆披靡,遂斬漢一將。」("Then King Xiang shouted loudly and galloped down, causing all of the Han army [to flee] pell-mell, whereupon he cut down one of the Han generals".)

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He's still waiting

From Francois Lang:

Attached is a photo of a sign in the washroom at Heckman's Deli in Bethesda, MD

I kept waiting for all the employees to wash my hands. I even asked. But nothing. Maybe it was something I said?

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Definiteness, plurality, and genericity

Mollymooly's comment on yesterday's post ("The Donald's THE, again") deserves general attention:

1. A leopard is bigger than a cheetah, though both have spots.
2. The leopard is bigger than the cheetah, though both have spots.
3. Leopards are bigger than cheetahs, though both have spots.
4. The leopards are bigger than the cheetahs, though both have spots.
5. Your leopard is bigger than your cheetah, though both have spots.
6. Your leopards are bigger than your cheetahs, though both have spots.

For me at least, 1 and 3 are generic; 2 can be either generic or specific; ditto 5 and 6 (though generic is very informal); but 4 must be specific. There seem to be restrictions on when "the + plural-noun" can be generic: are these restrictions syntactic, semantic, pragmatic?

From the other side of the Atlantic, I agree with her judgments. Does the intuited specificity of 4 help us understand what's odd about Donald Trump's use of "the women", "the gays", etc.?

There are several literatures (from philosophy of language as well as linguistics) that converge here,  and perhaps someone who knows them better than I do can summarize.

One comment: this is an area where there are subtle differences even among those languages that have categories approximately corresponding to English plurality and English definite or indefinite determiners. The Romance languages are clearly different from English here, but are they all the same among themselves? What about Germanic languages?

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"Perform a sex act"

How to be circumspect and explicit at the same time, from the Washington Post, Sept. 5: "Metro Transit Police arrested a man Monday afternoon whom they say exposed himself to a woman on an Orange Line train and tried to force her to perform a sex act." My mind isn't exactly racing: there aren't a whole lot of she-on-he sex acts that are introduced with the verb perform.

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Clueless Microsoft language processing

A rather poetic and imaginative abstract I received in my email this morning (it's about a talk on computational aids for composers), contains the following sentence:

We will metaphorically drop in on Wolfgang composing at home in the morning, at an orchestra rehearsal in the afternoon, and find him unwinding in the evening playing a spot of the new game Piano Hero which is (in my fictional narrative) all the rage in the Viennese coffee shops.

There's nothing wrong with the sentence. What makes me bring it to your notice is the extraordinary modification that my Microsoft mail system performed on it. I wonder if you can see the part of the message that it felt it should mess with, in a vain and unwanted effort at helping me do my job more efficiently?

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"I don't think you cannot deny someone the right"

Jamison Hensley, "Ravens' John Harbaugh defends Colin Kaepernick's right to protest anthem", ESPN sports 8/29/2016:

Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Monday that he respects Colin Kaepernick's right to protest the national anthem and cited a French Enlightenment philosopher in doing so.  

"Voltaire so eloquently stated, 'I may not agree with what you say, but I'll defend it until death your right to say it,'" Harbaugh said. "That's a principle that our country is founded on. I don't think you cannot deny someone the right to speak out or mock or make fun or belittle anybody else's opinion."

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The Festival are clear

One of the rare syntactic dialect differences between British and American English (there really aren't many) concerns verb agreement in present-tense clauses: British English strongly favors plural agreement with any singular subject noun phrase that denotes a collectivity of individuals rather than a unitary individual. And the extent to which it favors that plural agreement is likely to raise eyebrows with speakers of American English. This example, for example, from an email about a lecture at the Edinburgh International Book Festival:

The Festival are very clear that if you arrive after the start of the lecture you will not be admitted.

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Modal logic of traffic signs

Sent in by Michael Robinson:

I saw this traffic sign in Toledo, Ohio. Luckily I wasn't driving a truck, or I would have had no idea what I was allowed to do. Since we were in a car, we figured U-turns must be OK. Because we were heading to a place that sold coffee, and nothing must stand between us and our morning latte.


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