Archive for Language and culture

Lexico-cultural decay?

Jonathan Merritt, "The Death of Sacred Speech", The Week 9/10/2018:

America boasts more Christians than any other country on planet Earth. But you wouldn't know it from listening to us.

According to Google Ngram Viewer data, a searchable database of millions of printed works stretching back 500 years, most of the central terms in the Christian vocabulary are rapidly declining. One 2012 study in the Journal of Positive Psychology, for example, analyzed 50 moral terms associated with Christianity and found that a whopping 74 percent were used less frequently over the course of the last century […]

"Whopping "? If the frequency of each word were following a random walk, we'd expect 50% of them to decline and 50% of them to increase. And to be confident that 74% is "whopping", or even meaningful, we'd need to do something that neither Merritt nor the cited paper do, namely verify that there's no overall bias in the data source for reasons other than changing "cultural salience", either towards decreasing frequency of certain types of words, or decreasing frequency of individual words in general, But in fact there's good reason to believe that both sorts of bias exist — see below.

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The Nth Noun

Yesterday while stuck in traffic I listened to Michael Lewis being interviewed about his new book "The Fifth Risk", and I passed the time thinking about other titles of the form Definite Article + Ordinal Number + Noun. There are many of these, but there are clear stand-outs for numbers 1, 2, 3, and 7:

The First Circle
The Second Sex
The Third Man
The Seventh Seal

I couldn't think of any iconic examples for 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10, 11, etc., but no doubt readers will be able to supply some.

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"OK Google/Siri/Alexa/Cortana, What's Next?"

Penn's School of Arts and Sciences sponsors a series of "60 Second Lectures", where

Penn Arts and Sciences faculty take a minute out by the Ben Franklin statue in front of College Hall to share their perspectives on topics ranging from human history and the knowable universe to fractions and fly-fishing.

This past week, they asked me to do it, and I chose the title

"OK Google/Siri/Alexa/Cortana, What's Next?"

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Pronouns in physics

Madeleine Ngo, "Penn's physics department has started listing gender pronouns on its website", The Daily Pennsylvanian 9/26/2018:

Penn's Physics and Astronomy Department now lists gender pronouns on its website for some of its student, faculty, and staff members in an effort to combat stigma, encourage respectful communication, and promote the department's inclusivity.

The Diversity and Inclusion in Physics group initiated the project last semester with graduate students at the helm. In April, students and members of the department were emailed and given the option to submit their pronouns to be publicly shared on the website.

The department has been updating its website to include the responses. Physics and Astronomy Administrative Coordinator Glenn Fechner, who manages the department’s website, collected people’s pronouns and added them to each individual biography.

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"I am a cat" t-shirt

Thorin Engeseth sent in these two photographs of a Zara brand shirt that his wife bought yesterday:

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Balkan-Chinese rock, with a Turkish twist

From Charles Belov:

This song turned up on my Apple Music new music playlist. Imagine my surprise when, in the middle of this Balkan-language (Croatian, I think, the page mentions "hrvatsko") pop/rock song, Mandarin hip-hop turned up.

"Mladen Burnać (feat. Rock) – Džaba Džaba"

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"I'm here to be told"

In a production of Hapgood last night at the Lantern Theater, I was struck by a phrase that the character Elizabeth Hapgood uses four times. In fact, it caught my attention the first time she used it — as I've noted, a word or short phrase can be contextually salient even at a frequency of one (See e.g. "And yet", 3/28/2004).

Hapgood is the complex, not to say baffling, story of double (and triple and quadruple) agents, in which literal and fictional twins play a key role in complex espionage and counter-espionage operations. If  you're interested, you can find a plot summary here.

The phrase in question is "I'm here to be told", meaning something like "There's some information that I'm expecting from you, but not immediately, so I'm here standing by until you can tell me". The first three times that Hapgood uses it are in the context of radio communication with field agents during an operation, where it's clear to them what she wants to know or what she wants done, and "I'm here to be told" is essentially an instruction to them to do their job and report back. Her final use of the phrase is in a telephone conversation with her son, in which he's due to give her details about a rugby match that he'll be playing in. McKenna Kerrigan, the actor playing Elizabeth Hapgood, produced all four examples crisply, seriously, and without hesitation.

Although it's obvious in context what the phrase means, I don't recall ever having heard it before.  A search in Google Books comes up empty. A general web search turns up a few example with a complement to told and a rather different sort of meaning, for example "I’m not here to be told my pictures aren’t good. I’m here to be told why they weren’t good so I can improve."

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Pronouns: identification by paradigm?

A graduate student in classics expresses appreciation for the new norm of academic staff announcing their pronoun preferences, but wonders why everyone gives their preferences as three-element paradigm: she/her/hers, he/him/his, they/them/their. It's not like anyone is going to mix and match, she/him/their or whatever.

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The geo-, socio-, ethno-, and politicolinguistics of Taiwan

I've had guests from Taiwan for the past few days.  Two of them are mother and daughter, both primary school teachers.  The mother is a nationally known teacher of Taiwanese language who received special awards from two presidents, Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shui-bian.  She is very proud of the beauty of the Taiwanese language and is honored to be able to teach it to her students.  She refers to Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM) as "Huáyǔ 華語", as is done in Singapore and elsewhere in Southeast Asia, and refuses to call it 國語 ("National Language"), because, as she says, "It is not the language of our nation".

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Language and politics in an Inner Mongolian post office

[This is a guest post by Bathrobe.]

Recently I travelled in Inner Mongolia (China) where I picked up a few books in Chinese, Mongolian (traditional script), and English. As the books were getting heavy, I decided to offload them by posting them to Beijing for later pick up.

The lady at the post office was very apologetic, but they had just the day before received strong instructions to look out for books about Mao Tse-tung or the Cultural Revolution. They could accept only books written in Chinese characters; any others would first require clearance from the local office of the Bureau of Cultural Affairs.

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"Chinese light"

In the comments to "The ethnopolitics of National Language in China" (7/2/18), "Uyghur basketball player" (6/24/18), and other posts, there has been a vigorous debate on the relationship between national language on the one hand and local and "minority" / ethnic languages on the other hand.

In the course of the debate, many interesting political, linguistic, and cultural issues have been raised, but in the last paragraph of his latest comment, Bathrobe said something that really caught my attention:

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Chinese characters in the 21st century

We've been having a vigorous debate on the nature of Sinograms:  "Character crises".  It started on June 15, but it is still going on quite actively in the comments section.  A new reader of Language Log, a scholar of late medieval Chinese literature from Beijing was prompted by her reading of this lively discussion and other LL posts to which it led her to send in the following remarks:

Thanks to your blogs, I begin to be aware of some amusing aspects of Chinese languages, though I am still struggling with the terminology.

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A Philadelphian who doesn't like cheesesteaks and hoagies

[*cheesesteak; hoagie]

Recently, a new phrase has swept through the internet in China:  dìyù tuōyóupíng 地域拖油瓶.

People who introduced me to this expression told me that it refers to somebody who is not good at or who is unfamiliar with things associated with the place where he / she is from.  Of course, I had no problem with dìyù 地域, which means "region(al)", but I couldn't quite grasp the nuances of 拖油瓶 in this phrase.

Originally a Wu topolecticism, syllable by syllable it literally means "drag (along) oil bottle", but as a whole it signifies "children from the previous marriage of a woman who is about to remarry" (Wiktionary); "(derog.) (of a woman) to bring one's children into a second marriage / children by a previous marriage" (MDBG).

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