Archive for Lexicon and lexicography

Draconian dictionaries?

Rachel Paige King ("The Draconian Dictionary Is Back", The Atlantic 8/5/2018) suggests that lexicographers might be (re)turning to prescriptivism:

Since the 1960s, the reference book has cataloged how people actually use language, not how they should. That might be changing. […]

The standard way of describing these two approaches in lexicography is to call them “descriptivist” and “prescriptivist.” Descriptivist lexicographers, steeped in linguistic theory, eschew value judgements about so-called correct English and instead describe how people are using the language. Prescriptivists, by contrast, inform readers which usage is “right” and which is “wrong.”

King's historical sketch of lexicography's past century concludes that the descriptivists have won, but that

oddly enough, Merriam-Webster is doing a great deal to promote the idea that sounding educated and using standard—if not highbrow—English really does matter. […]

The company has a feisty blog and Twitter feed that it uses to criticize linguistic and grammatical choices. Donald Trump and his administration are regular catalysts for social-media clarifications by Merriam-Webster. The company seems bothered when Trump and his associates change the meanings of words for their own convenience, or when they debase the language more generally.

Maybe it’s not the dictionary that has become outmoded today, but descriptivism itself. I’m not implying that Merriam-Webster has or should abandon the philosophy that guides its lexicography, but it seems that the way the company has regained its relevance in the post-print era is by having a strong opinions about how people should use English.

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Corpora and the Second Amendment: 'keep' (part 1)

An introduction and guide to my series of posts "Corpora and the Second Amendment" is available here. The corpus data that is discussed can be downloaded here. That link will take you to a shared folder in Dropbox. Important: Use the "Download" button at the top right of the screen.

With this post, I begin my examination of the corpus data regarding the phrase keep and bear arms. My plan is to start at the level of the individual words, keep, bear, and arms, then proceed to the simple verb phrases keep arms and bear arms, and finally deal with the whole phrase keep and bear arms. I start in this post and the next one with keep.

As you may recall from my last post about the Second Amendment, Justice Scalia's majority opinion in D.C. v. Heller had this to say about the meaning of keep: "[Samuel] Johnson defined 'keep' as, most relevantly, '[t]o retain; not to lose,' and '[t]o have in custody.' Webster defined it as '[t]o hold; to retain in one's power or possession.'" While those definitions could be improved on, I think that for purposes of this discussion, they adequately explain what keep means when it's used in the phrase keep arms. So I'm not going to discuss that data with an eye to criticizing this portion of the Heller opinion.

Instead, I'm going to use the data for keep as the raw material for an introduction to the nuts and bolts of corpus analysis. I suspect that many people reading this won't have had any first-hand experience working with corpus data, or even any exposure to it. Hopefully this quick introduction will enable those people to better understand what I'm talking about when I start to deal with the data that does raise questions about the Supreme Court's analysis.

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Long words

I'm in Hamburg for lectures and meetings this week.

The first day I was here, in the afternoon I went out for a walk.  After taking about 50 steps from the front door of my hotel, I saw this lettering on the glass facade of a nearby building:

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Character crises

From Bob Bauer:

You may have heard that the famous HK-based novelist by the name of 劉以鬯 recently passed away at the age of 99.  [VHM:  I have intentionally left his name without transcription for reasons that will soon become apparent.]

I did not know how to read/pronounce the third character in his name, so I tried to look it up in some dictionaries. But I first needed to decide what is this character's radical? Trying to find the character by its radical turned out to be a very time-consuming process, as different dictionaries do different things with it — at least one doesn't bother to assign it to a radical.

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Corpora and the Second Amendment: Weisberg responds to me; plus update re OED

[An introduction and guide to my series of posts "Corpora and the Second Amendment" is available here.]

Two quick updates.

First, David Weisberg has replied to my response to his post on the Originalism Blog, but he doesn't address the point that I made, which was that I disagreed with his framing of the issue.

Weisberg also notes that I didn't respond to the second point in his original post (which dealt with a purely legal issue), and he goes on to say this:

Many people (and I think Goldfarb is one) believe the correct sense of the 2nd Amend is this: “The right of the people to keep and bear Arms, for use in a State’s well regulated Militia, shall not be infringed.” But, if that is what the framers meant, why isn’t that what they wrote? I think that is a very fair question to ask, and it merits an answer. After all, 5 words would have been saved. Will corpus linguistics provide an answer?

I'm not going to offer any views in this series of posts about how I think the Second Amendment as a whole should be interpreted; I'm focusing only on Heller's interpretation of the phrase keep and bear arms. So I'm not going to say whether Weisberg is correct in his speculation about what I think on that score. Weisberg then asks why, if the framers had intended to convey the meaning he posits, they didn't write the amendment in those terms. Although Weisberg thinks that is "a very fair question to ask," I don't think it's a question that's relevant to the issue as the Court framed it in Heller, which had to do with how the Second Amendment's text was likely to have been understood by members of the public, not with what the framers intended. Nevertheless, I'll say that the question to which Weisberg wants an answer is not one that can be answered by corpus linguistics.

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Corpora and the Second Amendment: Responding to Weisberg on the meaning of "bear arms" [Updated, and updated again]

[An introduction and guide to my series of posts "Corpora and the Second Amendment" is available here.]

The Originalism Blog has a guest post, by David Weisberg, taking issue with the conclusion in Dennis Baron's Washington Post op-ed that newly available evidence of historical usage shows that in District of Columbia v. Heller, Justice Scalia misinterpreted the phrase keep and bear arms. That's an issue that I wrote about yesterday ("The coming corpus-based reexamination of the Second Amendment") and that I'm going to be dealing with in a series of posts over the next several weeks.

One of Weisberg's arguments concerns a linguistic issue that I'm planning to address, and I think that Weisberg is mistaken. At the risk of getting out ahead of myself, I want to respond to Weisberg briefly now, with a more detailed explanation to come.

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The coming corpus-based reexamination of the Second Amendment [Updated]

[An introduction and guide to my series of posts "Corpora and the Second Amendment" is available here.]

[Update: Broken link fixed; description of uploaded data corrected.]

It was only three weeks ago that BYU Law School made available two corpora that are intended to provide corpus-linguistic resources for researching the original meaning of the U.S. Constitution. And already the corpora are yielding results that could be very important.

The two corpora are COFEA (the Corpus of Founding Era American English) and COEME (the Corpus of Early Modern English). As I've previously explained, COFEA consists of almost 139 million words, drawn from more than 95,000 texts from the period 1760–1799, and COEME consists of 1.28 billion words, from 40,000 texts dating to the period 1475–1800. (The two corpora can be accessed here.)

Within a day after COFEA and COEME became available, Dennis Baron looked at data from the two corpora, to see what they revealed about the meaning of the key phrase in the Second Amendment: keep and bear arms. (Baron was one of the signatories to the linguists' amicus brief in District of Columbia v. Heller.) He announced his findings here on Language Log, in a comment on my post about the corpora's unveiling:

Sorry, J. Scalia, you got it wrong in Heller. I just ran "bear arms" through BYU's EMne [=Early Modern English] and Founding Era American English corpora, and of about 1500 matches (not counting the duplicates), all but a handful are clearly military.

Two weeks later, Baron published an opinion piece in the Washington Post, titled "Antonin Scalia was wrong about the meaning of ‘bear arms’," in which he repeated the point he had made in his comment, and elaborated on it a little. Out of "about 1,500 separate occurrences of 'bear arms' in the 17th and 18th centuries," he said, "only a handful don’t refer to war, soldiering or organized, armed action." Based on that fact, Baron said that the two corpora "confirm that the natural meaning of 'bear arms' in the framers’ day was military."

My interest having been piqued, I decided to check out the corpus data myself.

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An explosion of curation

From June Teufel Dreyer:

Have you noticed that suddenly “curated,” previously almost exclusively used to refer to museum exhibitions, is turning up everywhere? A talking head recently said she was “curating [her] thoughts,” the floral arrangements for a society wedding were described as “curated” by a local florist… and so on.

I have a feeling I’m going to soon dislike the word as much as I do “the perfect storm.”

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OED on the language of sexual and gender identity

On Twitter, Katherine Connor Martin (Head of U.S. dictionaries at Oxford University Press) writes:

In the latest @oed update, dozens of entries relating to sexual and gender identity were revised, the first phase of a project to revisit this rapidly changing segment of the English lexicon.

She links to the lengthy Release Notes, of which the following is just the introduction:

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Of dogs and Old Sinitic reconstructions

At the conclusion of "Barking roosters and crowing dogs" (2/18/18), I promised a more philologically oriented post to celebrate the advent of the lunar year of the dog.  This is it.  Concurrently, it is part of this long running series on Old Sinitic and Indo-European comparative reconstructions:

I will launch into this post with the following simple prefatory statement:

Half a century ago, the first time I encountered the Old Sinitic reconstruction of Mandarin quǎn 犬 ("dog"), Karlgren GSR 479 *k'iwən, I suspected that it might be related to an Indo-European word cognate with "canine" [<PIE *kwon-]).

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Prescriptivist statutory interpretation?

The title of this post combines two topics that are popular with the Language Log audience, and that are not usually discussed together. It is also the title of a LAWnLinguistics post from 2012, shortly after the publication of Reading Law, a book about legal interpretation that was co-authored by Justice Scalia and Bryan Garner. It was one of a series of posts that I did about the book—a series of which the last installment has not yet been written.

The post was about whether prescriptivism has any role to play in statutory interpretation (no inside jokes in this title, I'm afraid), and it occurs to me that since many people here will be interested in the topic, it might be a good idea to bring the post back for a return engagement in a larger venue. And because the topic is one that I recently returned to at LAWnLing, I'm going to include the relevant part of that post as well.

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Language vigilantism

In "The Eagle-Eyed Vigilantes Defending the Chinese Language:  As new lingo springs up and grammatical errors persist, one magazine is battling to maintain linguistic standards", Yin Yijun (Sixth Tone [1/19/18]) describes an unusual PRC journal:

Shanghai-based Yaowen Jiaozi — whose name literally translates as “biting phrases and chewing characters” — was established in 1995 and operates under the slogan: “Bite every mistake that deserves to be bitten, and chew every article worth chewing.” The monthly magazine’s mission is to attack every grammatical error it encounters — and the staff take the job seriously. Over the past 20 years, the magazine has amassed a long list of mistakes, from a nearly unnoticeable Chinese character error on a chopstick wrapper, to a series of mistakes author and Nobel laureate Mo Yan made in his award-winning works.

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Sino-Vietnamese poster

I think I've seen this before, but can't remember where or when:


Source (bottom of the page)

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