Archive for Intelligibility

Trevor Noah reflects on language and identity

In my introductory undergraduate course on English words, and in most undergraduate introductory courses on linguistics, students are invited to reflect on language and identity—how the way you speak communicates information about who you are—which they are typically very interested in. This isn't my beat, professionally speaking, but as a linguist I have a duty to help my students think through some of these issues (and, if they get interested, point them in the right direction to get really educated). To get started, I often play this one-minute clip of a Meshach Taylor Fresh Air interview from 1990, which is usually a good starting point for some discussion.

But Fresh Air (yes I'm a Terry Gross fangirl) also recently ran an interview with the biracial South African host of the Daily Show, Trevor Noah, which contained this ten-minute motherlode of a reflection on multilingualism, language choice, racism, acceptable targets of mimicry, vocabulary size, Trump's communicative abilities, resentment of accented speech… whew. I'm just going to leave it here for your edification and enjoyment. Maybe one of our more sociolinguistically expert Language Loggers will provide some more detailed commentary later. For my part — well, I just invite you to think about what kind of 500-word essay you'd write for a Ling 101 class with this 10-minute clip as your prompt.

To hear the whole interview, or read the transcript, visit the NPR Fresh Air page.

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What's in the sachet?

At my hotel here in Brno, Czechia, the shampoo comes in small sachets, manufactured in Düsseldorf, labeled with the word denoting the contents in a long list of suitable European Union languages. I can't tell you which languages they picked, for reasons which will immediately become apparent. Here are the first four:

  1. Shampoo
  2. Shampoo
  3. Shampooing
  4. Shampoo

Just so you're sure.

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Say what?

Mike Miller received the text below via WeChat recently, where it seems to be making the rounds:

Gěi dàjiā jiǎng yīgè gǎnrén de gùshì: Yīgè qiāng kōng hé jī shè jī cǎn chǐ dú ē, túrán, chài yī líng diàn máo bīn qǐ, lí yuè miè chán…ránhòu jiù sǐle. Tài gǎnrénle…! Zhè gùshì jiào “yīgè wénmáng de bēi'āi”. Dàjiā wǎn'ān, míngtiān jiàn!

给大家讲一个感人的故事: 一个戗箜翮齑歙畿黪褫髑屙 ,突然,虿黟囹簟蟊豳綮,蠡瀹蠛躔…然后就死了。 太感人了…! 这故事叫《一个文盲的悲哀》。大家晚安,明天见!

Let me tell everybody a touching story:  A blah blah blah blah.  Suddenly, blah blah blah, blah blah….  After that he died.  This is so touching.  This story is called "The sorrow of an illiterate".  Good night, everybody.  See you tomorrow.

VHM:  Pinyin transcription and translation added by me.

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ESPN vs. the English language

A screenshot from ESPN's home page has been making the rounds on Imgur and Reddit. It captures a tease to a column by Howard Bryant, and it's dubbed "Possibly the worst sentence ever."

View post on imgur.com

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Degrees of spiciness

Tim Leonard sent in the following photograph of a Korean restaurant sign:

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The swazzle: a simple device for voice modulation

Until two days ago, I had never heard of this word — even though I knew about Punch and Judy shows.

From Wikipedia:

A swazzle is a device made of two strips of metal bound around a cotton tape reed. The device is used to produce the distinctive harsh, rasping voice of Punch and is held in the mouth by the Professor (performer) in a Punch and Judy show.

Swazzle can also be pronounced or spelled Schwazzle or swatchel.

I like the fact that the performer is called "Professor"!

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A decision entirely

Urgent bipartite action alert for The Economist: First, note that my copy of the July 18 issue did not arrive on my doormat as it should have done on Saturday morning, so I did not have my favorite magazine to read over the weekend; please investigate. And second, the guerilla actions of the person on your staff who enforces the no-split-infinitives rule (you know perfectly well who it is) have gone too far and are making you a laughing stock. Look at this sentence, from an article about Iran (page 21; thanks to Robert Ayers for pointing it out; the underlining is mine):

Nor do such hardliners believe compliance will offer much of a safeguard: Muammar Qaddafi's decision entirely to dismantle Libya's nuclear programme did not stop Western countries from helping his foes to overthrow and kill him.

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Mutual unintelligibility among Sinitic lects

By chance, I came across this most revealing section of a perceptive book by Linda Jakobson entitled A Million Truths: A Decade in China (pp. 175-177), which shows how people from different parts of China often don't really understand each other.  That includes people who are supposedly speaking different varieties of Mandarin.  I know this from my own experience travelling across the length and breadth of China.  For instance, see the second paragraph of this post, "Mutual Intelligibility of Sinitic Languages", also the next to the last paragraph of this article, "English and Mandarin juxtaposed", where I describe a climb up Emei Mountain in Sichuan, during which incomprehension among "Mandarin" speakers was a demonstrable, inescapable fact.  Seldom, however, do people write about this semi-taboo topic so clearly as Linda Jakobson.

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Mutual intelligibility

POP QUIZ!

Assuming no prior, formal study of or contact with the opposite language in a given pair (i.e., one is coming at these languages completely cold), roughly what degree (percentage) of intelligibility would exist between the spoken forms of the languages in the list below?  Naturally, you are not expected to comment on all of these pairs, but knowledgeable assessment of any of the pairs would be both valuable and appreciated.  Feel free to add any other pairs not listed, or to combine a language from any of the given pairs with a language from any other pair.  Unless otherwise noted, the languages listed are the national standards.  If the name of a city or region is given, the reference is to the language spoken in that area.

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