Archive for Language and science

Language as a self-regulating system

Thought-provoking article by Lane Greene, the language columnist and an editor at The Economist:

"Who decides what words mean:  Bound by rules, yet constantly changing, language might be the ultimate self-regulating system, with nobody in charge", Aeon (12/6/18).

Greene starts with a wallop:

Decades before the rise of social media, polarisation plagued discussions about language. By and large, it still does. Everyone who cares about the topic is officially required to take one of two stances. Either you smugly preen about the mistakes you find abhorrent – this makes you a so-called prescriptivist – or you show off your knowledge of language change, and poke holes in the prescriptivists’ facts – this makes you a descriptivist. Group membership is mandatory, and the two are mutually exclusive.

But then he softens the blow by saying, "it doesn't have to be this way".

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Wolf's milk, a slime mold attractive to young Chinese?

"Growing up on wolf's milk" — when I first encountered this expression, which was applied to youth who had survived the multiple catastrophes of the first quarter-century of the PRC, I took it literally because I thought that they didn't have much of anything else to eat.  Naturally, though, I did wonder how they would be able to obtain a significant amount of milk from she-wolves to make a difference.

For a moment I thought that maybe starving children were going out into the woods and scavenging for Lycogala epidendrum, commonly known as wolf's milk or groening's slime, which grows on damp, rotten logs from June through November. It wasn't long, however, before I realized that the expression "growing up on wolf's milk", as it occurred in PRC parlance from the 70s and later, was being used metaphorically to describe the hardships experienced by those who endured the privations of early communist rule in China.

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Naming Nihonium

The naming of the recently discovered synthetic chemical element Nihonium offers an interesting opportunity to reflect upon the policies, practices, and principles of scientific terminology.  Nihonium has the atomic number 113.  It was first reported to have been created in 2003, but it did not have a formal name until November, 2016, when "nihonium" was made official.

"Nihonium" is an internationally recognized term, but what is it called in various languages having diverse phonological and scriptal characteristics?

French — Nihonium

German — Nihonium

Italian — Nihonio

Spanish — Nihonio

Vietnamese — Nihoni

Russian — Nikhoniĭ Нихоний

Japanese — Nihoniumu ニホニウム

Korean — Nihonyum 니호늄

Chinese — Nǐ 鉨

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Toilet Revolution!!

Wunderbar!

China had a toilet reform movement already a decade or two ago. I remember reading a whole, serious book about how to improve toilet construction and behavior.  In fact, I bought a copy and studied it assiduously, but can't put my hands on the volume at this moment.

Apparently the toilet improvement campaign is still going on.  In this "Dictionary of Xi Jinping's new terms", it is number 9 out of 20 key items in the imperial lexicon extracted from President Xi's "Important speeches he made in conferences, inspections and state visits [that] set the tone for China's reform, development agenda and diplomacy."  This "dictionary" was issued by The State Council Information Office of the People's Republic of China.  Here's the entry for "Toilet revolution":

Along with agricultural modernization and new rural construction, local governments will ensure that villagers have access to hygienic toilets.

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How rapidly and radically can a language evolve?

[This is a guest post by Alex Wang, a long-term resident of Shenzhen, China]

I was wondering if there have been any studies on how readily a language can absorb new elements and features.

Yesterday at the Pacific Coffee shop near where I live, by chance I struck up a conversation with a professor who teaches economics at the local Shenzhen University.  He heard me speaking with my younger son in English and, when I went to attend my older son, he struck up a conversation with my younger son.  I suppose he was curious about how my younger son's oral English skills were so “good”, since he has a daughter who is around the same age as my older boy.  It would seem many locals want an English speaking friend for their children so as to have an environment to practice.

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Death by french fries

The Daily Telegraph did not do much for its reputation, at least in my eyes, when it confused the defense with the prosecution after a celebrity sexual assault mistrial. Nor when it recently consulted me about whether there were grammar mistakes on a banknote, learned that there clearly were not, but went ahead and published the claim that there were anyway. Now for a sample of the Telegraph's science reporting, written by Adam Boult, who I suspect didn't complete his statistics course:

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Draconic nomenclature

Madeline K. Sofia, "'Baby Dragon' Found In China Is The Newest Species Of Dinosaur" (NPR, 5/9/17) clarifies the origin of Beibeilong sinensis, the newest dinosaur species:

In 1993, farmers in China found a Beibeilong embryo and eggs in Henan province. The fossils were sold to an American fossil company called The Stone Co. and brought to the United States. A model of an embryo curled inside an egg was famously featured on the May 1996 cover of National Geographic and was nicknamed "Baby Louie."

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VX in Chinese

By now practically the whole world knows that Kim Jong-nam, North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un's older half-brother, was killed by the extremely toxic nerve agent called VX.  VX is much more potent than sarin, which was used by the Aum Shinrikyo cult to kill 12 people and injure thousands of others in the Tokyo subway in 1995.  Apparently, it's not clear why this series of nerve agents is called "V" ( "Victory", "Venomous", or "Viscous" are some of the possibilities).  Since research on these agents is restricted primarily to the military, not much is known about them in civilian circles.  Whatever the "V" stands for, and besides VX, other agents in the series include VE, VG, VM, and VR.

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Will "Arrival" bring linguistics into the popular consciousness? A guest post by Luke Lindemann

The movie "Arrival" has been in theaters for three weeks now, and it has already grossed $100 million worldwide. That's an impressive box-office draw, and it can't all be due to linguists and their friends attending. Clearly this contemplative film, with a field linguist as the heroic protagonist, is resonating with audiences. But what does that mean for linguistics as a discipline and its perception by the public at large? Below is a guest post by Luke Lindemann, a PhD student in linguistics at Yale University who is working on the semantics of ergativity in Indo-Aryan. He is also a member of the Yale Grammatical Diversity Project, and I had the pleasure of attending a press screening of "Arrival" with Luke and a few of his colleagues from the YGDP team. The film led to some intense discussions afterwards, as I'm sure it has for linguists everywhere. (In a separate post, I'll round up reactions from linguists since my last "Arrival" post.)

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Chinese, Japanese, and Russian signs at Klagenfurt Botanical Gardens

Blake Shedd sent along a series of forty pictures of plant identification signs from the botanical garden in the small southern Austrian city of Klagenfurt am Wörthersee. He was rather impressed that the botanical garden staff went to the trouble of including non-Latin / non-German names for the plants.  And I was impressed at the remarkable documentation Blake provided by carefully and clearly photographing so many signs with essentially the same lighting and size.  There's no need for him to apologize ("leaning over roped-off areas to get shots resulted in a few blurry or less than ideal shots"). The green leaves appearing at the edges of some of the photographs, which are otherwise black and white, only serve to enhance the arboreal, herbaceous atmosphere evoked by reading the signs.

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The hand of god

Article in ScienceAlert today (3/4/16):

"Scientists are freaking out over a new paper that says our hands were designed by God"

#Creatorgate

The article in ScienceAlert begins:

Twitter exploded today with the news that a peer-reviewed scientific paper about the human hand credits its design to "the Creator", and scientists around the world are so furious, they called for an official retraction.

The paper, which mentions a "Creator" several times throughout, was published by the journal PLOS ONE back in January, but went largely unnoticed until James McInerney, a researcher in computational molecular evolution at the University of Manchester in UK, used twitter to call the journal "a joke".

To say that the paper has generated an enormous amount of controversy would be an understatement.

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How English became such a dominant second language in China today

In a comment to "An orgy of code-switching" (11/6/15), I wrote:

In connection with the ABC Chinese-English dictionary database which they wanted to buy, I had some dealings with Microsoft in China about 15 years ago. Already then, their internal language in the Beijing and Shanghai offices was English. Around the same time, I also had contact with several other major companies in China where the situation was exactly the same.

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Goldensmell salt and milkfish balls

Jackie and Mimi, Toni Tan's daughters, spotted two interesting products at the Asian supermarket near their home.

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