Archive for Grammar

Word, syllable, morpheme, phoneme

What is the basic unit of discursive, communicative language — word, syllable, morpheme, or phoneme?

This topic came up in the comments to the following posts:

"The concept of word in Sinitic" (10/3/18)

"Words in Vietnamese" (10/2/18)

"Diacriticless Vietnamese on a sign in San Francisco" (9/30/18)

"Words in Mandarin: twin kle twin kle lit tle star" (8/14/12)

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The concept of word in Sinitic

In the following posts, we've been tackling the thorny, multifaceted question of whether Vietnamese has words and lexemes, as opposed to having syllables and morphemes:

During the course of our discussions, the parallel question of whether Sinitic had words or not also came up.  Let me put it this way:  although there was no concept of "word" in Sinitic before the 20th century, there were Sinitic words, going all the way back to the oracle bone inscriptions (the first stage of Chinese writing) more than three thousand years ago, as documented in these posts and dozens of others:

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Reanalysis, Jackie Chan edition

Photograph of a high-backed chair that has gone viral on Chinese social media (as reported in this Taiwan newspaper):

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"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.

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The non-ineffability of "strip" as a measure word

The Guardian published an article on "10 of the best words in the world (that don't translate into English)" (7/27/18).  Calling on nine of their correspondents, they introduced a bouquet of beautiful words, each one of which I am enamored:

SPAIN: sobremesa (Sam Jones in Madrid)

PORTUGAL: esperto/esperta (Juliette Jowit)

ITALY: bella figura (Angela Giuffrida in Rome)

GERMANY: Feierabend (Philip Oltermann in Berlin)

FINLAND: sisu (Jon Henley)

IRAN: Ta’arof (Saeed Kamali Dehghan)

RUSSIA: тоска (toska) (Andrew Roth in Moscow)

JAPAN: shoganai (Justin McCurry in Tokyo)

NETHERLANDS: polderen (Jon Henley)

CHINA: tiáo 条 (Madeleine Thien)

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Citizenship and syntax (updated, and updated again)

Last week the Washington Post published an op-ed by Michael Anton arguing that the United States should do away with birthright citizenship—the principle that anyone born in the United States is a U.S. citizen, even if their parents are foreign-born noncitizens. The op-ed has attracted a lot of attention from people on both the left and the right, and by “attention” I mean “condemnation”. (E.g., Garrett Epps at The Atlantic, Mark Joseph Stern at Slate, Dan Drezner at the Washington Post, Robert Tracinski at The Federalist, Alex Nowraseth at The American Conservative, and Jonathan Adler at Volokh Conspiracy. See also this Vox explainer.)

The criticism both on on Anton’s nativism, but also on his interpretation of the 14th Amendment, on which birthright citizenship is based. One of the interpretive moves for which Anton has been criticized is his handling of a statement made on the floor of the Senate while the proposed text of the 14th Amendment was being debated. And that dispute turns on the resolution of a syntactic ambiguity.

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Mother tongue is like mother's milk

Pro-Taiwanese language poster on a wall in Tainan (courtesy of Tim Clifford):

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The wonder of Cantonese particles

Rosalyn Shih has an entertaining and informative piece called "Let's Go Laaaaaaaa:  And learn Cantonese particles" in LARB China Channel (5/1/18)

Some highlights:

…In Singapore, particles have migrated to English, prompting the Quora thread “Why do Singaporeans say lah at the end of every sentence?”

It seems that the more southern the Chinese-speaker, the more particles he or she might use. Citing various studies from 1924 to 1994, Language Log notes the estimates of Cantonese particles are anywhere from 30 to 206….

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"and himself jail"

In "More Cohen Businesses Coming to Light," on Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall writes:

The biggest taxi operator in New York, Evgeny “Gene” Friedman, now manages Cohen’s 30+ NYC medallions or at least did the last time we spoke to him. Friedman has been struggling for the last year to keep his taxi businesses out of bankruptcy and himself jail.

The final three words of the boldfaced clause present a weird, and dare I say unusual, case of double ellipsis. The semantic content communicated by those three words (in the context of the sentence) is richer than you'd think could be expressed by only three words, especially given that one of them is merely the conjunction and. That content can be represented as follows, with the struck-through text standing for the content that the reader must infer:

Friedman has been struggling for the last year to keep his taxi businesses out of bankruptcy and to keep himself out of jail.

There's nothing unusual about the first omission; I don't see anything wrong with the clause to keep his taxi businesses out of bankruptcy and himself out of jail. But the omission of out of strikes me as very strange, and what's even stranger is that to my ear, the clause is worse if to keep is put back:

* Friedman has been struggling for the last year to keep his taxi businesses out of bankruptcy and to keep himself jail.

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A virus that fixes your grammar

In today's Dilbert strip, Dilbert is confused by why the company mission statement looks so different, and Alice diagnoses what's happened: the Elbonian virus that has been corrupting the company's computer systems has fixed all the grammar and punctuation errors it formerly contained.

That'll be the day. Right now, computational linguists with an unlimited budget (and unlimited help from Elbonian programmers) would be unable to develop a trustworthy program that could proactively fix grammar and punctuation errors in written English prose. We simply don't know enough. The "grammar checking" programs built into word processors like Microsoft Word are dire, even risible, catching only a limited list of shibboleths and being wrong about many of them. Flagging split infinitives, passives, and random colloquialisms as if they were all errors is not much help to you, especially when many sequences are flagged falsely. Following all of Word's suggestions for changes would creat gibberish. Free-standing tools like Grammarly are similarly hopeless. They merely read and note possible "errors", leaving you to make corrections. They couldn't possibly be modified into programs that would proactively correct your prose. Take the editing error in this passage, which Rodney Huddleston recently noticed in a quality newspaper, The Australian:

There has been no glimmer of light from the Palestinian Authority since the Oslo Accords were signed, just the usual intransigence that even the wider Arab world may be tiring of. Yet the West, the EU, nor the UN, have never made the PA pay a price for its intransigence.

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Teacher is always honest

When I began studying Mandarin over half a century ago, I very quickly developed a pet phrase  (kǒutóuchán 口頭禪 / 口头禅):  lǎoshí shuō 老實說 / 老实说 ("to tell the truth; honestly"), After I married one of the best Mandarin teachers on earth (Chang Li-ching) several years later, she corrected me when I said my favorite phrase.  She told me that I made it sound like lǎoshī shuō 老師說 / 老师说 ("teacher says").

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Keep on -inging

Jeff DeMarco writes:

From a Facebook post (timeline) by a young woman in HK:

卡拉ok ing ……😂🤣

GT deftly translates it as karaoke ing.

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Gender distinction in languages

[This is a guest post by Krista Ryu]

It may be true that the problem of gender inequality is more severe in East Asian countries than in European countries. However, in terms of languages, Indo-European languages actually distinguish genders while East Asian languages traditionally do not.

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