Archive for Language and culture

Fox redux

Melvin Jules Bukiet, "What's Your Pronoun?", The Chronicle Review 9/21/2015:

[H]aving learned to adapt to unexpected or previously unknown pronouns, I am confronted by a new wrinkle in the language of identification. As one of the staff members at the college where I teach recently informed the faculty, "Some of the students will prefer to be referred to as ‘they.’ "  

Really? Or rather, no, because here my problem is practical. Specifically, it’s what verb to use in those pesky evaluations. I cannot bring myself to write, "They is a good student." Nor can I write, "They are a good student." And I simply won’t write about an individual, "They are good students," because "they" are not Walt Whitman. "They" do not contain multitudes. They are entitled to their own identity, but not to their own grammar. Therefore, in lieu of any pronoun, I will use whatever name a student provides. This will lead to a stilted paragraph, but it won’t be wrong.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (42)

Japanese nuances (nyuansu ニュ アンス) of "nuisance"

From Bruce Balden:

The link below (dated 1/29/15) concerns apparently incomprehensible behavior on the part of the father of a young Japanese man taken hostage and killed by ISIS recently.

The link contains the key phrase "for lack of a better translation", but I wonder how hard they tried to translate it. I'd be interested to know what exactly Haruna Yukawa's father said and if it's really so incomprehensible when taken in context.

The phrase in question was uttered by Yukawa’s father when he formally apologized to the people of Japan for his son “causing a nuisance”.

"Chinese netizens left reeling after father of slain Japanese hostage apologizes to the public" (1/29/15)

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (17)

Vanessa Ruiz

Fernanda Santos and Christine Hauser, "Arizona News Anchor Is Drawn Into Debate on Her Accent and the Use of Spanish", NYT 9/3/2015:

An Arizona news anchor defended her pronunciation of Spanish words during English broadcasts, saying she delivers them the way the language is intended to be spoken. […]

Ms. Ruiz, who was raised in a bilingual household, said some viewers had questioned her way of pronouncing Spanish words. Sandra Kotzambasis, the station’s news director, said viewers were asking why Ms. Ruiz “rolled her Rs.”

The most striking thing about this controversy is how small the issue really is, at least in terms of the number and type of words whose pronunciation is contested.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (36)

Typical options like “he� and “she�

Collin Binkley, "He? She? Ze? Colleges add gender-free pronouns, alter policy", AP 9/18/2015

Welcome to Harvard. Feel free to pick a pronoun on this form: __ He. __ She. __ Ze. __ E. __ They.

During the registration process at Harvard University, students are now allowed to indicate which pronouns they use, with suggested gender-neutral options like "ze" or "they." Harvard isn't the first college to embrace gender-neutral pronouns, but it's among a wave of major institutions that are widening their policies and pronouns to acknowledge transgender students, as well as "genderqueer" students, who don't identify as male or female.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (22)

Walmart China talk

Don't think that a Walmart in China is like a Walmart in America.  Far from it.  Chinese Walmarts carry many products tailored for the local market that you would never find in an American Walmart.

Here are "20 Things You'll Only See in Chinese Walmarts".

I won't go through all 20 of these curious items in detail, but will focus mainly on a few that are linguistically or otherwise of particular interest.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (15)

The bearded barbarian

Ben Zimmer mentioned to me that he was on the Slate podcast Lexicon Valley talking about the origins of the word "gringo":

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (28)

One for Diogenes

The philosopher Diogenes of Sinope was eccentric, to say the least — he begged for a living, slept in a large ceramic jar in the marketplace, and discarded the wooden bowl that was his only possession, deciding that it was excess baggage. He refuted the Platonic definition of human as "featherless biped" by exhibiting a plucked chicken. In response to the hypothesis that humans are rational animals, he wandered about in daylight with a lantern, explaining that he was looking for a rational individual — usually described in modern versions as looking for an honest man. Plato described him as "a Socrates gone mad".

But if Diogenes were still around, I'd put a tetradrachm or two in his hand, and urge him to go have a talk with Keith Chen.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (17)

Inuit dialect names

Helen DeWitt's wonderful novel The Last Samurai has unfortunately gone out of print, so I was happy to learn from her yesterday that a new edition is planned.

What follows is an epistolary post, consisting of her note to me, her letter to Kenn Harper, and his response to her.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (5)


Julian Harrison, "Help Us Decipher This Inscription", British Library Medieval Manuscripts Blog, 8/3/2015:

Visitors to Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy may have noticed that we have one or two objects on display, in addition to the many manuscripts and documents telling Magna Carta's 800-year-old story. One of those objects is a double-edged sword, found in the first section of the exhibition, on loan to the British Library from our friends at the British Museum. The item in question was found in the River Witham, Lincolnshire, in July 1825, and was presented to the Royal Archaeological Institute by the registrar to the Bishop of Lincoln. […]

An intriguing feature of this sword is an as yet indecipherable inscription, found along one of its edges and inlaid in gold wire. It has been speculated that this is a religious invocation, since the language is unknown. Can you have a go at trying to decipher it for us? Here's what the inscription seems to read:


Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (42)

Pop Japonesque nonsense?

[This is a guest post by Nathan Hopson]

Amazon's App Store for Android features a free daily app. The selection of a few days ago caught my eye not for the content of the app itself, but for the nonsensical (and incorrect) use of Japanese.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (8)


Emily Landau, "Why Person-First Language Doesn’t Always Put the Person First", Think Inclusive 7/20/2015:

There are two main types of language used to refer disability: person-first language and what is known as identity-first language (IFL). PFL as a concept originated among people who wanted to fight back against stigma. In a society that perceived disability as dehumanizing, advocates wanted those around them to remember that having a disability does not, in fact, lessen your personhood. As such, the PFL movement encouraged the use of phrases like “person with disability,” “girl with autism” or “boy who is deaf.” In speaking this way and putting the person first, it was considered a show of respect.  

PFL was adopted as a general linguistic rule, moving from use by the people who initiated the movement towards heavy use by those in professional spheres. It essentially became the law of the land. Teachers, doctors, nurses, social service professionals, government officials… everyone was told that they should use only PFL. Using a term such as “disabled person?” A cardinal sin.  

However, as with almost any major activism movement, PFL sparked a countermovement, known as identity-first. IFL is a linguistic concept embraced and actually preferred by countless people within the disability community. In the ideology of identity-first, “disabled” is a perfectly acceptable way for a person to identify. Instead of going out of your way to say “person with a disability,” when using IFL you would instead say “disabled person.” This is how I personally choose to identify myself. I am a disabled person.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (34)

Failing words in Myanmar

Thomas Fuller, "Those Who Would Remake Myanmar Find That Words Fail Them", NYT 7/19/2015:

It’s the dawn of democracy in Myanmar. If only the Burmese had their own word for it.  As this former dictatorship opens to the world, language is a stumbling block.  

For half a century, Myanmar was so cut off from the outside world that people were jailed for owning an unauthorized fax machine. As the rest of the world was hurtling into the information age, the strict censorship of publications, limited access to global media and creaking connections to the Internet stunted the evolution of the Burmese language, leaving it without many words that are elsewhere deemed essential parts of the modern political and technical vocabulary.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (16)

Reality v. Brooks

David Zweig, "The facts vs. David Brooks: Startling inaccuracies raise questions about his latest book", Salon 6/15/2015 ("Factual discrepancies in the NYT columnist's new book raise some alarming questions about his research & methods"):

For at least the past four years David Brooks, the New York Times columnist, TV pundit, bestselling author and lecture-circuit thought leader, has been publicly talking and writing about humility. Central to his thesis is the idea that humility has waned among Americans in recent years, and he wants us to harken to an earlier, better time.  

One of the key talking points (if not the key talking point) cited by Brooks in lectures, interviews, and in the opening chapter of his current bestseller, “The Road to Character,” is a particular set of statistics — one so resonant that in the wake of the book’s release this spring, it has been seized upon by a seemingly endless number of reviewers and talking heads. There’s just one problem: Nearly every detail in this passage – which Brooks has repeated relentlessly, and which the media has echoed, also relentlessly — is wrong.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (14)