Archive for Grammar

Fecal Intensifiers

[This is a guest post by Brendan O'Kane, written on the evening of 3/24/17]

At a friend’s dissertation defense this morning, a certain distinguished Dutch professor emeritus, explaining the appeal of prosimetric vernacular literature to audiences in late imperial Shandong, noted that “people before about 1950 were mostly bored shitless.”

This cracked the room up, naturally, but it also seemed slightly off: in my own idiolect, I might be scared shitless, but not much else. On the other hand, something that scared the shit out of me might bore the shit out of a more jaded spectator, or cause an onlooker with a meaner sense of humor to shit themselves laughing.

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Cantonese sentence-final particles

Even if you don't know any Cantonese but listen carefully to people speaking it, you probably can tell that it has an abundance of particles.  For speakers of Mandarin who do not understand Cantonese, the proliferation of particles, especially in utterance final position, is conspicuous.  Non-speakers of Cantonese, confronted by all these aa3, ge3, gaa3, laa1, lo1, mei6, sin1, tim1, and so on naturally wonder why there are so many particles in this language, what are their various functions, why they are often drawn out (elongated), and how they arose.

Cantonese speakers, on the other hand, just take them in stride as a natural part of their expressive equipment and don't think that there is anything unusual about them.

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Court fight over Oxford commas and asyndetic lists

Language Log often weighs in when courts try to nail down the meaning of a statute. Laws are written in natural language—though one might long, by formalization, to end the thousand natural ambiguities that text is heir to—and thus judges are forced to play linguist.

Happily, this week's "case in the news" is one where the lawyers managed to identify several relevant considerations and bring them to the judges for weighing.

Most news outlets reported the case as being about the Oxford comma (or serial comma)—the optional comma just before the end of a list. Here, for example, is the New York Times:

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(South) Korea bashing

Following up on these two recent posts:

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Choice-type questions

No, I am not talking about multiple choice questions.  I'm talking about the kind of choice questions that language teachers introduce as one of the many ways to ask a question in Chinese.

This subject has come up in connection with the following post that went up the day before yesterday:

"Yes-no questions in mathematics and in Chinese" (2/10/17)

Yes-no questions are questions that may be answered with a "yes" or a "no" (or their equivalents in Chinese).  That's what the day before yesterday's post was about.  In the discussion, however, the matter of choice-type questions arose, centered on the use of words for "or" in Chinese:  háishì 还是, huò 或, and huòzhě 或者.  For this type of question, the respondent is expected to choose between two alternatives.

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Yes-no questions in mathematics and in Chinese

From Daniel Sterman:

There’s an old joke about computer programmers (or mathematicians, or logicians). Ask them “Is X right or wrong?” and they’ll answer “Yes”. Because, indeed, either X is right or it is wrong.

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Particle amnesia

[This is a guest post by Nathan Hopson]

I know you've written a lot about character amnesia in the greater Sinosphere. But I think I witnessed the related, but significantly different, phenomenon of (grammatical) particle amnesia (or perhaps, "drift") during a recent trip to Hawaii.

As you know, Hawaii has a large nikkei* population. This is especially true in and around Honolulu, where I was for the Japanese Studies Association conference last week. In addition to an extraordinary number of Japanese tourists, Oahu is home to nisei,** sansei,*** and many people of mixed heritage. Japanese signs abound, and Japanese is spoken in many hotels, restaurants, and stores.

[*an American of Japanese descent.]
[**second generation; ***third generation]

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The Annoying PPP (past-perfect progressive)

It's only January, yet we may have already seen this year's winner in the category of Misapprehensions about Chinese Characters and the Nature of Language.  It appears in Xiaolu Guo's "‘Is this what the west is really like?’ How it felt to leave China for Britain" (The Guardian, 1/10/17).  Ms. Guo's long essay, an adapted extract from her forthcoming Once Upon a Time in the East: A Story of Growing Up, is preceded by this dismal epigraph:

Desperate to find somewhere she could live and work as she wished, moved from Beijing to London in 2002. But from the weather to the language and the people, nothing was as she expected.

Poor Xiaolu Guo!

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La conjetural Ursprache de Tlön

David Brooks may be a fantasy-nonfiction author manqué, but Jorge Luis Borges has set a standard in that space that's hard to match. From  "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius", in Ficciones:

There are no nouns in the hypothetical Ursprache of Tlön, which is the source of the living language and the dialects; there are impersonal verbs qualified by monosyllabic suffixes or prefixes which have the force of adverbs. For example, there is no word corresponding to the noun moon, but there is a verb to moon or to moondle. The moon rose over the sea would be written hlör u fang axaxaxas mlö, or, to put it in order: upward beyond the constant flow there was moondling. (Xul Solar translates it succinctly: upward, behind the onstreaming it mooned.)

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Nouns, verbs, and ontological metaphors

Federico Escobar pointed me to an essay by David Brooks, "The 2016 Sidney Awards, Part I", NYT 12/27/2016:

Perry Link once noticed that Chinese writers use more verbs in their sentences whereas English writers use more nouns. For example, in one passage from the 18th-century Chinese novel “Dream of the Red Chamber,” Cao Xueqin uses 130 nouns and 166 verbs. In a similar passage from “Oliver Twist,” Charles Dickens uses 96 nouns and 38 verbs. […]

Link notes that Indo-European languages tend to use nouns even when verbs might be more appropriate. Think of the economic concept inflation. We describe it as a thing we can combat, or whip or fight. But it’s really a process.

Link takes this thought in a very philosophical direction, but it set me wondering how much our thinking is muddled because we describe actions as things. For example, we say someone has knowledge, happiness or faith (a lot of faith or a little faith, a strong faith or a weak faith); but faith, knowledge and happiness are activities, not objects.

Of course I wondered about this, since David Brooks was post-truth before post-truth was cool (see e.g. "Reality v. Brooks", 6/1/2015). And it's likely to puzzle both philosophers and psychologists to be told that they view faith, knowledge, and happiness as objects.

So I went to the cited essay — Perry Link, "The Mind: Less Puzzling in Chinese?", NYRB 6/30/2016.

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Coffee and caffeine; laws and morals

A Korean chain coffee shop, Caffe Bene, recently opened a branch at 38th and Chestnut in University City, Philadelphia.  This is a design on one of the walls:

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He comfortable! He quickly dry!

A neighbor of mine, a respectable woman retired from medical practice, set a number of friends of hers a one-question quiz this week. The puzzle was to identify an item she recently purchased, based solely on what was stated on the tag attached to it. The tag said this (I reproduce it carefully, preserving the strange punctuation, line breaks, capitalization, and grammar, but replacing two searchable proper nouns by xxxxxxxx because they might provide clues):

ABOUT xxxxxxxx
He comfortable
He elastic
He quickly dry
He let you unfettered experience and indulgence. Please! Hurry up
No matter where you are. No matter what you do.
Let xxxxxxxx Change your life,
Become your friends, Partner,
Part of life

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Buzz-phrase

After reading "A new English word" (11/30/16), Yixue Yang sent me the following interesting note on "lihai" ("awesome / awful") in action in China today:

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