Archive for Parsing

Pinyin in 1961 propaganda poster art

From Geoff Dawson:

On display in a current exhibition at the National Library of Australia.

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A polysyllabic character that can be read in two different ways

Photo taken in Hangzhou by Nikita Kuzmin's Chinese teacher:

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"Intelligent transportation communication systems"?

This morning's email brought an invitation to contribute to a "Special Issue on Intelligent Transportation Communication Systems" (for this journal). It took me a little while to figure out that conversing with cars (which I'm definitely in favor of) was not what they had in mind. And this process  reminded me of how difficult it can be for humans — never mind machines — to figure out how to parse complex nominals in English. (See "The Stress and Structure of Modified Noun Phrases in English" for some antique thoughts on the subject…)

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Resisting reunification

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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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Struck by a duck-rabbit effect

I was just reading along in the NYT today but had to pause at this sentence:

Mr. Trump has used bankruptcy laws to shield him from personal losses while his investors suffer.

I found myself puzzling over whether "him" was all right there or whether I wanted "himself", and even more puzzled that I was having trouble deciding. I would try out one, then the other, and the sentence kept shape-shifting on me. I didn't "feel" any particular ambiguity, and yet either choice would sound bad to me one second and good the next. Puzzled.

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The foreign carrot regime problem

English translation of the title of a Japanese book for sale on Amazon:

Japanese lost sight of "nation" – the essence of foreign carrot regime proble

From the Japanese version the book seems to be a collection of excerpts from mostly right-wing / ultra-nationalistc writers (but why is the Japanese Communist Party there?).

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Waste bin misnegation

I saw a sticker on the lid of a pedal-operated hospital waste bin that said this:


Everyone who uses the bin sees this notice; maybe some even read it and try to respect it; but perhaps only Language Log readers will notice that it contains a misnegation — another sign that the number of negations within a sentence that our poor monkey brains can successfully handle averages out at little more than 1.

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Rooster Caponizing Competition

Sign at the Hakka Cultural Museum in Kaohsiung, Taiwan:

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God is concerned about air quality

During the past week, this phrase kept popping up on the Chinese internet, on WeChat, on blogs and microblogs — it was just everywhere (1,850,000 ghits), and people were wondering exactly what it meant:

zhǔ yào kàn qì zhí 主要看气质 ("main / primary — want — see — gas / breath / spirit / vital energy — quality / substance / nature")

I have intentionally not aggregated the syllables into words.  The lack of a disambiguating context for this phrase — it tended to just show up by itself — permitted several different readings.

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Drunk [on] US dollars

On June 9, 2012, Clement Larrive wrote:

I stumbled upon this sign while on a trip from Wuhan, Hubei to Shanghai.
Do you have any idea about what it really means ?

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Where to keep your pubic hair

The worst choice of preposition-phrase modifier placement anywhere in the world last week was probably the one at the E! online page. The headline read as follows:

Cameron Diaz Encourages Women to Keep Their Pubic Hair in Her New Book

Women of the world, listen to Language Log: stop keeping locks of your pubic hair pressed between the pages of Diaz's book. This whole craze is the result of a misunderstanding that should have been foreseeable. It is quite the opposite of what Ms. Diaz intended. The only fortunate thing about the incident is that it really does illustrate and underline the importance of syntax.

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Segmentation of Chinese terms

A very interesting question has come up about how to interpret the term xiǎo cài guǎn 小菜館 (lit., "small vegetable / dish shop").  Some people say it should be A. "xiǎo càiguǎn" (a small restaurant).  Other people say it should be B. "xiǎocài guǎn" (a place where you get side dishes / family style cooking).

See "Gourmet Chinese cookshop" and the comments thereto.

I think that it is not just one or the other, but that it can be both depending upon the circumstances.

When I want xiǎo cài guǎn 小菜館 to mean A. (xiǎo càiguǎn ("a small restaurant"]), I pronounce it with a slight pause after xiǎo and emphasis on the first syllable of càiguǎn.  When I want xiǎo cài guǎn 小菜館 to mean B. (xiǎocài guǎn ("a place where you get side dishes / family style cooking"]), I pronounce it with a pause after the second syllable and a slightly greater emphasis on the third syllable.

For the importance of pause and emphasis in Chinese elocution, see, for example, here and here (4th paragraph).

As we shall see from the survey and analysis below, there are even other possibilities for understanding this collocation.  In the end, its precise meaning can only be determined by context.

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