Archive for Language play

Cat and mouse on the Chinese internet

Yesterday in the Washington Post, there was an enticing article by Anna Fifield:  "These are the secret code words that let you criticize the Chinese government" (7/29/15).

Fifield states that she is drawing on "Decoding the Chinese Internet: A Glossary of Political Slang," by authors Perry Link and Xiao Qiang.  Comment by Perry Link:  "This is good work, and I am happy to have my name associated, but it is not my work.  Ms Fifield somehow made a mistake."

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Lojban just got harder

Matt Treyvaud forwarded this from the Lojban mailing list:

"Lojban changes to hanzi writing system" (4/1/15)

Some people complained that although the spelling in Lojban is very easy to grasp the grammar is not. So the committee for the development of Lojban (BPFK) decided to fix this issue and to make the spelling hard as well.  Especially for those people who are not familiar with hanzi (Chinese characters).

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"Imitation Game" codebreakers also played the palindrome game

Doc, note: I dissent. A fast never prevents a fatness. I diet on cod.

Is this the best palindrome ever created in English? Many think so. (I agree.) But did you know that it was made by the British mathematician Peter Hilton, while working alongside Alan Turing as an "Enigma" codebreaker during World War II? If you've seen The Imitation Game, you might remember Matthew Beard's portrayal of young Hilton. (The film embellishes his true story, giving him a brother serving on a Royal Navy ship targeted by the Germans.)

Even more amazingly, "Doc, note I dissent…" was actually the result of a palindrome competition held by the codebreakers at Bletchley Park (who, as the movie shows, were quite good at UK-style cryptic crosswords, too). The competition was, like the rest of the goings-on at Bletchley Park, shrouded in secrecy until relatively recently. Now for the first time, Mark Saltveit, editor of The Palindromist Magazine, tells the full story of the codebreakers' palindrome game. Read all about on Vocabulary.com here.

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A record-setting pangrammatic window

A few months ago, I posted here (and on Slate's Lexicon Valley blog) about PangramTweets, a bot created by Jesse Sheidlower that combs Twitter for tweets that include all 26 letters of the alphabet. I mentioned that it would be interesting to see if PangramTweets turns up any particularly short "pangrammatic windows," i.e., pangrammatic strings in naturally occurring text. At the time, the shortest known example was 42 letters long, in a passage from Piers Anthony's Cube Route:

"We are all from Xanth," Cube said quickly. "Just visiting Phaze. We just want to find the dragon."

My post inspired Malcolm Rowe, a software engineer at Google, to set about finding short pangrammatic windows in an automated fashion, first on the Project Gutenberg corpus and then on the megacorpus of web pages indexed by Google. (Let's hear it for Google's 20 percent time!) On his blog, Malcolm now reports on his findings, including the discovery of a 36-letter pangrammatic window that appeared in a review of the movie Magnolia on PopMatters:

Further, fractal geometries are replicated on a human level in the production of certain “types” of subjectivity: for example, aging kid quiz show whiz Donnie Smith (William H. Macy) and up and coming kid quiz show whiz Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman) are connected (or, perhaps, being cloned) in ways they couldn’t possibly imagine.

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PangramTweets

The Twitter API, beyond its great utility for corpus linguistics (see "On the front lines of Twitter linguistics," "The he's and she's of Twitter"), has made possible a lot of fun automated text-mining projects. One fertile area is algorithmic found poetry: there have been Twitter bots designed to find accidental haikus, and even more impressively, a bot named @Pentametron that finds rhyming tweets in iambic pentameter and fashions sonnets out of them.

And then there is found wordplay, which is its own kind of found poetry. I'm a big fan of @Anagramatron, which discovers paired tweets that form serendipitous anagrams of each other. (Example: "Last time I do anything" ⇔ "That's it. I'm dying alone.") Now, courtesy of Jesse Sheidlower, comes @PangramTweets, in which each tweet contains every letter of the alphabet at least once.

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"Ustam" + "k" = 10 months in jail

In Turkey, outspoken newspaper columnist Önder Aytaç has received a 10-month jail sentence over an errant "k" on Twitter.

Here is how the situation is explained in Zeynep Tufekci's widely cited Medium post:

Meet “k”, the character that got newspaper columnist and academic Önder Aytaç a 10 month jail sentence in Turkey. Aytaç is a columnist for a newspaper affiliated with the Gulenist movement, followers of Fettulah Gulen, the self-exiled cleric who lives in Pennsylvania and was once the AKP government’s closest ally, but now is among its bitterest enemies. The fight between the former allies surfaced over the closing of “private schools,” or “dershaneler,” which the Gulen movement operates in dozens of countries around the world, including the United States. These dershaneler are crucial to the movement as they are the source of both recruits and money. The Prime Minister of Turkey, Erdogan, announced in late 2013 that he would be shutting them down.

During the bitter fight, Onder Aytaç tweeted this:

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Ambiguous Mandarin sentences

Ambiguity exists in all languages, especially if an author is not careful to forestall it.  On the other hand, writers and poets sometimes intentionally court it for literary effect, in which case there are at least Seven Types of Ambiguity.

Two literary attributes that are perhaps more salient in Mandarin than in many other languages are ambiguity and rhyme, the former because Chinese words are not strongly marked grammatically (e.g., hóng 紅 ["red"] can be an adjective, noun, or verb [dōngfāng hóng 東方紅 {"the east IS RED"}]) and the latter because of the huge number of homophones in the language.

Currently, a set of seven sentences has been circulating on the internet.  They are preceded by a notation which states that a high level test for foreign students of Chinese in 2013 included the following sentences, each of which the students had to explain in two different ways.  Before listing and translating the sentences, I should mention that it is not immediately obvious that each of the sentences can be interpreted in two different ways.  To a certain degree, I would compare the effect of reading these sentences to that of looking at optical illusions; sometimes you have to look a very long time before you can see both versions of the illustration, and sometimes you never see more than one version, no matter how hard you look.

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Too much Victor Mair

I've been reading way too much Victor Mair. In the restaurant of my hotel in London I just saw an English girl wearing a T-shirt on which it said this:


H O
P E

And I immediately thought, who is Ho Pe?

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Jumbled Chinese

I knew it wouldn't be long before someone came up with a Chinese equivalent to alphabetical typoglycemia:

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Sea Bay Restaurant

Thomas Lumley sent in this nice multilingual pun from Sydney, Australia:

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Burlesques, parodies, playful allusions

On my personal blog, here, an inventory of postings on these topics — at the moment, only postings on my blog.

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Annual appeal

The annual begging posting for that admirable resource, the Linguist List. Some details, including the portmanteau metafortress, on my blog, here.

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Mad Libguistics

One of the random things I happened to notice yesterday, in a list of people who passed away in 2011, was the name of Leonard Stern, co-creator of Mad Libs. (Back in 2008, Arnold Zwicky marked the game's 50th anniversary here on Language Log.) For those who've never seen it, Mad Libs is a word game in which one player prompts a second player for a list of words — give me a noun; ok, now an adjective; ok, now another noun, etc. — where the kinds of words needed are determined by labeled blanks that are situated in a little story that only the first player can see. In the second step of the game, the two players read the story together with the words inserted in their proper positions. The very first Mad Libs gave the following as an example:

 "_____________! he said ________ as he jumped into his convertible
exclamation              adverb
______ and drove off with his __________ wife."
 noun                            adjective

(Footnote: I've borrowed the example from the game's Wikipedia entry.)

Thinking about Mad Libs last night after a bedtime conversation with my six year old, I've concluded that someone really needs to design a linguistics course entirely around Mad Libs.

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