Archive for Language and biology

Of mynas and miners, bells and whistles

Over at Spicks & Specks, Greg Pringle has a virtuoso post on "The Bell Miner:  How orthography and ornithology catalysed a new folk etymology" (8/9/15).  It's about an Australian honeyeating bird — Manorina melanophrys — that used to be called the Bellbird, but was renamed Bell Miner through association with the South Asian bird called in Hindi the mainā मैना (" starling").

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More Chinese characters in nature

Chips Mackinolty sent in this intriguing photograph from Peter Cooke Darwin's tumblr, Life Is A Carnivore:

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Moth onomastics: Chinese Character (Cilix glaucata)

"Chinese character" is the name for a moth in this Wikipedia article.  At first when I read the article, I thought that there must have been an error.  But when I started to check around, I discovered that the same English name for Cilix glaucata occurred all over the place.

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Chinese words and characters for "gizzard"

Having immersed myself in Korean gizzard terminology for the past week, I now turn to Chinese gizzard terms, which are every bit as curious and varied, if not so intermittently scatalogical.  Whereas the problems with Korean terms for gizzard centered primarily on their imprecision and vulgarity, the difficulties with Chinese terms for gizzard have more to do with pronunciation, topolectal variation, and the characters used for writing the various terms.

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Chicken Asshole Restaurant

Tim Leonard sent in this photograph of a sign for a Korean restaurant:

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Names of Chinese birds

If you are a birder, you are in for a treat.  If you are a bird watcher who is particularly fond of Chinese species, you are in for a double treat.

Craig Brelsford is a writer and editor living in Shanghai, China. Mr. Brelsford is currently creating the world's first photographic field guide to the birds of China. To that end, he travels constantly throughout the vast territory of China.

His peregrinations have taken him to 31 of the 34 provincial-level entities in China researching his field guide.  As even the briefest of visits to his blog will attest, Mr. Brelsford is one serious birder.

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Rainbow snail

A new species of snail has been identified in eastern Taiwan. They're calling it Aegista diversifamilia as a way of remembering "the struggle for the recognition of same-sex marriage rights."  The tie-in is that the snail is hermaphroditic.  But this is really nothing new to snail-lovers, since the great majority of pulmonate snails, opisthobranchs, and slugs are hermaphrodites.

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Biomedical nerdview

My new hobby, as Randall Munroe sometimes says, is asking biomedical researchers what "sensitivity" and "specificity" mean. The modal response is "Um, yes, I always have to look those up".

But recently, preparing a homework assignment about the evaluation of binary classifiers, I had a flash of insight. My new insight answers one of the questions I've always had about these terms: Why do biomedical researchers focus on the (apparently misleading) concepts that "sensitivity" and "specificity" denote?  (My other question remains unanswered: Why did they pick those singularly un-mnemonic names? As far as I can see, they might as well have called them  "delicacy" and "capacity", or "intensity" and "curiosity", or "Jupiter" and "Saturn".)

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Neoguri: raccoon or raccoon dog?

The typhoon that struck Okinawa a few days ago and is now passing by Tokyo is called Neoguri.  It gets it name from a Korean word meaning "raccoon dog".

The Japanese refer to it as Taifū 8-gō Neoguri 台風8号ネオグ リ ("Typhoon No. 8 Neoguri"), but most often without the "Neoguri" (see below for discussion of Japanese typhoon designation practices).  However, the Chinese are calling it Huànxióng 浣熊 ("raccoon"), which is a clear mistranslation.  The Chinese name for the raccoon dog is hé 貉 or háozi 貉子.

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Annals of over-interpretation

Some useful framing for the Ingalhalikar et al. paper I wrote about earlier today — Christian Jarrett, "Getting in a Tangle Over Men's and Women's Brain Wiring", Wired 12/4/2013:

[L]et’s set this new brain wiring study in the context of previous research. Verma and her team admit that a previous paper looking at the brain wiring of 439 participants failed to find significant differences between the sexes. What about studies on the corpus callosum – the thick bundle of fibres that connects the two brain hemispheres? If women really have more cross-talk across the brain, this is one place where you’d definitely expect them to have more connectivity. And yet a 2012 diffusion tensor paper found “a stronger inter-hemispheric connectivity between the frontal lobes in males than females”. Hmm. Another paper from 2006 found little difference in thickness of the callosum according to sex. Finally a meta-analysis from 2009: “The alleged sex-related corpus callosum size difference is a myth,” it says.  

OK, one last thing. I don’t know if you saw it, but earlier this year another study involving hundreds of participants used a different technique (resting state fMRI) to examine connectivity in the brain, this time for the purpose of seeing if some people have more left-brain functional hubs and others have more right-brained hubs (they don’t). This obviously isn’t the same focus as the new PNAS paper, but if men and women’s brains really are wired up differently to optimise them for map reading or multitasking etc, you’d think there’d be some important sex differences in the way functional hubs are lateralised (distributed to one side of the brain or the other). In fact, “no differences in gender were observed,” the authors said.  

In conclusion – Wow, those are some pretty wiring diagrams! Oh … shame about the way they interpreted them.

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Brain wiring and science reporting

People have been asking Language Log (well, at least one somewhat off-topic commenter asked once) whether we have a view about the recent study alleging sex differences in brain wiring by Ragini Verma and colleagues. Language Log does not really regard this as a linguistic story, but keeps an eye on such neurophysiological topics for their occasional implications for language and the way it is implemented in the brain, and also on the language in which such science is reported. The study has been (of course) wildly overhyped, with newpaper stories around the world talking about men's and women's brains being wired completely differently (guys, you have tons of front-back wiring to aid you in spear-chucking and direction-finding; gals, you have oodles of left-right cross-connections to aid you in gossiping and domestic multi-tasking; that sort of thing). For a short, sharp, and well-informed critique of the way ideology (and philosophical error) warps the press interpretation of brain-scan results, take a look at the letter by Rae Langton and John Dupré in the Guardian, submitted by two excellent British philosophers with interests in both the biology and ideology of the relations between the sexes. They call the press coverage of this study a "deterministic fairy-tale" that is "bad for men and women, bad for science, bad for us all."

Update: A fuller version of the Langton/Dupré letter with discussion can be found on Brian Leiter's blog, and there is more here on Language Log here and here.

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Japanesespanishmackerel

This will be a mini-disquisition on fish terminology, focusing on one particular species.

Reader hanmeng, after seeing a reference to bàyú 鲅鱼 (a kind of fish — discussion below) in the opening scene of the 32nd episode of " Méndì" 门第 ("family status; pedigree; ancestry; lineage; families related by marriage equal in social status" — title of a popular TV drama series), googled to find what the equivalent word is in English, and was directed to Baidu (a search engine for Chinese-language websites), where they render it as "Japanesespanishmack—erel".

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