Archive for Parsing

Waste bin misnegation

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


THIS SACK HOLDER IS SPECIFICALLY DESIGNED TO BE FOOT OPERATED ONLY. THE LID MUST NOT BE HAND OPERATED AND PUSHED PAST THE POINT WHERE IT WILL NOT AUTOMATICALLY RETURN TO THE CLOSED POSITION.

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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Ambiguous Mandarin sentences

Ambiguity exists in all languages, especially if an author is not careful to forestall it.  On the other hand, writers and poets sometimes intentionally court it for literary effect, in which case there are at least Seven Types of Ambiguity.

Two literary attributes that are perhaps more salient in Mandarin than in many other languages are ambiguity and rhyme, the former because Chinese words are not strongly marked grammatically (e.g., hóng 紅 ["red"] can be an adjective, noun, or verb [dōngfāng hóng 東方紅 {"the east IS RED"}]) and the latter because of the huge number of homophones in the language.

Currently, a set of seven sentences has been circulating on the internet.  They are preceded by a notation which states that a high level test for foreign students of Chinese in 2013 included the following sentences, each of which the students had to explain in two different ways.  Before listing and translating the sentences, I should mention that it is not immediately obvious that each of the sentences can be interpreted in two different ways.  To a certain degree, I would compare the effect of reading these sentences to that of looking at optical illusions; sometimes you have to look a very long time before you can see both versions of the illustration, and sometimes you never see more than one version, no matter how hard you look.

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