Archive for Language and society

Unmasking Slurs

I'm sympathetic to many of the arguments offered in a guest post by Robert Henderson, Peter Klecha, and Eric McCready (HK&M) in response to Geoff Pullum's post on "nigger in the woodpile," no doubt because they are sympathetic to some of the things I said in my reply to Geoff. But I have to object when they scold me for spelling out the word nigger rather than rendering it as n****r. It seems to me that "masking" the letters of slurs with devices such as this is an unwise practice—it reflects a misunderstanding of the taboos surrounding these words, it impedes serious discussion of their features, and most important, it inadvertently creates an impression that works to the advantage of certain racist ideologies. I have to add that it strikes me that HK&M's arguments, like a good part of the linguistic and philosophical literature on slurs, suffer from a certain narrowness of focus, a neglect both of the facts of actual usage of these words and the complicated discourses that they evoke. So, are you sitting comfortably?

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Response to Pullum on slurs

This is a guest post by Robert Henderson, Peter Klecha, and Eric McCready in response to Geoff Pullum's post of July 10. My only role was offering in advance to post a reply if the authors would like me to. I'm a good friend of Geoff Pullum and a friend of the authors. What follows is theirs.

We were quite surprised to read the LL post by Geoff Pullum of July 10. In this post, GP discussed the suspension of Tory MP Anne Marie Morris for using the phrase “n****r in the woodpile” at an event held at the East India Club. After her use of this phrase was recorded and publicized, she was suspended by the Tories for what the Financial Times described as a racist remark. According to GP, this punishment was excessive, as the remark in question was not racist; he proceeds “reluctantly” to defend Ms. Morris, as the idiom in question was merely “silly.” While we offer no comment on the appropriateness of the specific punishment Ms. Morris received, we do find this characterization problematic on both moral and empirical grounds, together with many other commentators on social media, and we want to suggest that the author should have been (much) more careful when dealing with such an important topic.

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"Just ghost"

The verb "ghost" to mean "leave a social event without announcing one's departure" has apparently been around for a while, but I wasn't aware of it until a couple of weeks ago when I happened upon this 7/3/13 article in Slate by Seth Stevenson:

"Don’t Say Goodbye:  Just ghost."

Because I have often felt awkward and embarrassed about wanting to leave a social gathering before bidding adieu at least to the hosts, but not finding a suitable moment to say goodbye, I immediately became enamored of this new (to me) verb because it sanctioned an impulse that I was previously unable to act upon.

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"White left" — a Chinese calque in English

I had never heard of "white left" until two or three days ago when I read this article by Chenchen Zheng in openDemocracy (5/11/17):

"The curious rise of the ‘white left’ as a Chinese internet insult".

It's an intelligent, thought-provoking piece, followed by a stimulating discussion among the commenters who come from many perspectives and venture into all sorts of relevant areas (e.g., immigration, race, social constructionism, deregulation, privatization, healthcare, and so on, but even more purely philosophical questions as well).

What I find particularly interesting about the issues swirling around "white left" is that they were initially broached in the context of China, which means that both the advocates and detractors of "white left" thinking were outsiders critiquing the West, yet wondering what implications the "white left" critique of the social, political, and economic situation in the West hold for themselves.

Here's the epigraph:

Meet the Chinese netizens who combine a hatred for the ‘white left’ with a love of US president Donald Trump.

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English names in East Asia

We have had thousands of students from China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore enrolled as undergraduates and graduate students at Penn.  To name just a few at random, there are Andromeda, Tess, Sophie, Isis (but she changed it to Iset after finding out about the Islamic terrorist state), Leander, Lovesky, and so on.  I won't speculate on why they choose the names they do (and, of course, there are plenty of students named David, Peter, Henry, Susan, Nancy, Jane, and even an occasional Carlos, etc.), but the fact remains that almost every student from the Sinosphere who applies to Penn has an English name of one sort or another.  Many of them, prodded by their American teachers or friends, give up these foreign names after a while, or they use their Chinese names and English names in different circumstances.

The same is true for Korea, and it seems to an even greater degree, such that in some circles in Korea, having an English name is obligatory:

"Why Korean companies are forcing their workers to go by English names" (WP, 5/12/17)

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Wenzhounese in Italy

Commonly referred to as "Devil's language" (èmó zhī yǔ 恶魔之语), because it is considered by outsiders to be extraordinarily difficult, Wenzhounese (Wēnzhōu huà 温州话), the language of the city of Wenzhou in Zhejiang Province 230 air miles south of the Yangtze estuary, has been a topic of discussion on Language Log before:

"Devilishly difficult 'dialect" (8/20/15)

"Mutual unintelligibility among Sinitic lects" (10/5/14)

"Devil-language" (5/25/14)

"The enigmatic language of the new Windows 8 ads" (5/14/13)

"Mutual intelligibility" (5/28/14)

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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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Ask Language Log: why is "inch" a family relationship in Korean?

Katie Odhner asks:

I have lately been teaching myself Korean and have become quite interested in Sino-Korean vocabulary. Recently two words in particular caught my attention: samchon 삼촌 ("paternal uncle"), from Chinese s ān cùn 三寸 ("three inches"), and sachon 사촌 ("cousin"), from Chinese sì cùn 四寸 ("four inches"). I wondered how "three inches" and "four inches" could turn into family members. According to one website I found, chon 寸 can refer to "degree (of kinship)", which makes some sense. But when I looked on ctext.org (Chinese Text Project), I couldn't find classical Chinese examples of this usage, so I'm thinking maybe it's a Korean invention.

Have you ever encountered cùn 寸 ("inch") in Classical Chinese to refer to degree of kinship? Do you think it's a Korean invention? And does "third degree of kinship" for uncle and "fourth degree of kinship" for cousin have any roots that you can think of in the Confucian tradition, or is that also a native Korean concept?

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Japan: crazy over portmanteaux

No matter where I go these days, I hear young people shouting to their friends, "I'm playing Pokémon Go", which they pronounce "pokey-mon go".  It would be an understatement to say that, for the past few weeks, Pokémon Go has been a veritable craze.  Yet most people who play the game probably do not realize that the name "Pokémon" is a Japanese portmanteau based on two English words:  poketto ポケット ("pocket") + monsutā モンスター ("monster"). 

"What's in a name — Pikachu, Beikaciu, Pikaqiu?" (5/31/16)

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Floating world

Nicola Esposito sent in the following observations and questions:

What is the etymology of ukiyo 浮世, the "floating world" known in the West mostly thanks to its depictions by artists such as Hiroshige, Hokusai and others?

While perusing the website of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, I discovered that the origins of ukiyo lie in a homophone of 浮世 denoting the "transient world" of Buddhist tradition.  The page does not offer any other detail, but from what I gather that homophone should be ukiyo 憂世, whose literal meaning should be closer to something like "unhappy world".  Unfortunately my knowledge of Japanese is too shallow to be able to to tackle Japanese sources, and I was wondering if you could offer insight on this etymology and in particular how this substitution happened, if it indeed happened. Was it some kind of pun?

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Modern English Grammar

Richard Hershberger, who usually writes about baseball, has a recent post at Ordinary Times about "Modern English Grammar":

My post today is uncharacteristically devoid of baseball content. It is about grammar, one of my many unremunerative interests. Specifically it is about modern English grammar. I don’t mean by this (except incidentally) the grammar of modern English. Rather, I mean modern grammar of English. Also, modern grammars of English. 

It's great to see this evidence of interest in grammar (and grammars), and to see an argument for the relevant of 20th-century linguistics based on an insightful exploration of an interesting corner of English syntax. But it's less great that Mr. Hershberger fails to note that his crucial examples are actually a special case of a much more general pattern, and that the 53 comments go off in various interesting directions without noticing this. As usual in such cases, I blame the linguists, for allowing general education in grammatical analysis to fall into such a sorry state that smart people with an interest in such matters are generally not given the chance in school to learn more of the content and methods of the past sixty years or so of linguistic research.

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Sandra Bland: Talking While Black

Below is a guest post by Nicole Holliday, Rachel Burdin, and Joseph Tyler:


Sandra Bland’s traffic stop and the tragic series of events that occurred afterwards have been the subject of many recent think pieces, but few authors have examined why the initial traffic stop went wrong in the first place. The most obvious explanation might be simple racial profiling, which almost certainly played a role, but the dash cam video of the event also shows an interaction that escalated at an alarmingly rapid pace. The conversation between Sandra Bland and police officer who stopped her, officer Brian Encinia started out relatively calmly, but clearly didn’t stay that way. Amid the frustration, heartbreak, and demands for justice, everyone wants to know, how did a seemingly simple traffic stop turn into verbal and physical violence, setting off a chain of events that eventually led to Bland’s death?

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Outsiders and hard drives

It's a bit of a mystery how and why "outsiders" (wàidìrén 外地人) are referred to by Shanghainese as "hard disks / drives" (yìngpán 硬盘).

Intrigued, I asked around, and here are some of the replies I received.

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