Archive for Errors

Attribution of the WannaCry ransomware to Chinese speakers

The notorious WannaCry malware infestation began on Friday, May 12, 2017 and spread rapidly throughout the world, infecting hundreds of thousands of computers and causing major damage.  Speculation concerning the identity of the perpetrators focused on North Korea, but the supposed connection was never convincingly demonstrated, and there were no other serious suspects.

Yesterday, Jon Condra, John Costello, and Sherman Chu published a stunning report which suggests that the authors of WannaCry — or someone they hired — spoke fluent Chinese:

Linguistic Analysis of WannaCry Ransomware Messages Suggests Chinese-Speaking Authors” (Flashpoint [5/25/17])

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The political dangers of mispronunciation

From Chinascope (4/3/17):

Party Officials Criticized for Mispronouncing Words during Public Speech

A Duowei News [Multidimensional News] article quoted an article from Jiefang Daily [Liberation Daily] on March 30 which sharply criticized a number of party officials for mispronouncing words during their public speeches and said that the phenomenon resulted in quite a lot of laughter and jokes in China. Some of the officials were reported to have even repeated the same mistakes at several locations. These officials were criticized for poor language skills and knowledge while the people around the officials were reportedly too scared to make any corrections or to say “No” to certain of their bosses’ inappropriate behavior. As Duowei reported, the Jiefang Daily article questioned whether mispronouncing the words was simply mispronouncing the words or if it sent another kind of alarming signal.

Source: Duowei News, April 1, 2017
http://china.dwnews.com/news/2017-04-01/59808599.html

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No such thing

A Reuters article of March 30, 2017 has the title ” China says ‘no such thing’ as man-made islands in South China Sea“.  Upon reading this headline, the world asked, “Have the Chinese gone completely out of their mind?”  For the last couple of years, we have watched China building these bases at a feverish pace, and they have been documented from airplanes and satellites.  How could the Chinese baldly say to the world that there is ” ‘no such thing’ as man-made islands in Southeast Asia Sea”?

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You April fools!

Many Language Log readers have been complaining about the absence of any recognition of April Fool’s Day at this site. I can only lament your lack of perceptiveness. There have been pranks all over the place and you simply didn’t see them because you are too gullible.

The primary linguistic one was Victor Mair’s amusing spoof post “Sinological suffering”, cunningly posted on March 31st to be there when you read Language Log on Saturday morning, April 1st, about an imaginary Chinese character that couldn’t be found in dictionaries no matter what lookup method you tried.

Do you really think a writing system could survive if it were so brain-wrenchingly complex, arcane, and impossible to document that there would be written characters that Victor Mair, one of the greatest experts on Asian languages on this planet, could not track down or translate?

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Sinological suffering

Since I became a Sinologist in 1972, hardly a day has passed when I didn’t spend an hour or two vainly searching for a character or expression in my vast arsenal of Chinese reference works.  The frustration of not being able to find what I’m looking for is so agonizing that I sometimes simply have to scream at the writing system for being so complicated and refractory.

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Neil deGrasse Tyson on linguists and Arrival

This is a guest post submitted by Nathan Sanders and colleagues. It’s the text of an open letter to Neil deGrasse Tyson, who made a comment about linguists on Twitter not long ago.


Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson,

As fellow scientists, we linguists appreciate the work you do as a spokesperson for science. However, your recent tweet about the film Arrival perpetuates a common misunderstanding about what linguistics is and what linguists do:

In the @ArrivalMovie I’d chose a Cryptographer & Astrobiologist to talk to the aliens, not a Linguist & Theoretical Physicist

Neil deGrasse Tyson (@neiltyson), 1:40 PM – 26 Feb 2017

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The Daily Mail deluding themselves

An amusing slip in the Daily Mail (online here), in an opinion piece by Dan Hodges on the decline of the Labour Party and its singularly unsuccessful leader Jeremy Corbyn. Hodges says that “anyone who thinks Labour’s problems began on September 12, 2015, when Corbyn was elected, are deluding themselves.”

It’s unquestionably a grammatical mistake, of course. Not about pronoun choice, but about verb agreement.

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Subsective adjectives and immigration

An important rallying cry and usage distinction made by allies of undocumented workers in the current cultural battle over immigration in the United States is Elie Wiesel’s assertion above: “No human being is illegal.” In the quote, Wiesel gives examples of the kinds of adjectives that he feels can denote properties of people (fat, skinny, beautiful, right, and wrong). On the other hand, calling a person ‘illegal’, he says, is a contradiction in terms.

Here’s a more elaborated statement of the idea, quoted from this website 

When one refers to an immigrant as an “illegal alien,” they are using the term as a noun.  They are effectively saying that the individual, as opposed to any actions that the individual has taken, is illegal.  The term “illegal alien” implies that a person’s existence is criminal.  I’m not aware of any other circumstance in our common vernacular where a crime is considered to render the individual – as opposed to the individual’s actions – as being illegal.  We don’t even refer to our most dangerous and vile criminals as being “illegal.” 

Now because syntax is my actual job, I am honor-bound to point out that the term ‘illegal alien’ is a noun phrase, not a noun, and furthermore, that “using a term as a noun” does not mean “using it to refer to a person, place or thing,” which I think is what the author above may be trying to say. But that quibble aside, we can see the idea. Laws criminalize actions, not people. Hence only someone’s actions, not their very existence, can be illegal.

What are the linguistic underpinnings of the intuition that using the term illegal alien implies that a person’s existence is illegal? I think it derives from an important distinction in types of adjectival meanings that I’ve learned about from the work of my Language Log colleague Barbara Partee. Different types of adjectives license different patterns of inferential reasoning.

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Study hegemon

Here’s another example of Chinese writing frustration:

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Choice-type questions

No, I am not talking about multiple choice questions.  I’m talking about the kind of choice questions that language teachers introduce as one of the many ways to ask a question in Chinese.

This subject has come up in connection with the following post that went up the day before yesterday:

Yes-no questions in mathematics and in Chinese” (2/10/17)

Yes-no questions are questions that may be answered with a “yes” or a “no” (or their equivalents in Chinese).  That’s what the day before yesterday’s post was about.  In the discussion, however, the matter of choice-type questions arose, centered on the use of words for “or” in Chinese:  háishì 还是, huò 或, and huòzhě 或者.  For this type of question, the respondent is expected to choose between two alternatives.

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Writing frustration

Somebody posted this in a WeChat group:

The character they were struggling to write is this:

xiāo 宵 (“night; evening; dark”)

Here it combines with yuán 元 (“first; primary; chief; principal”) to form the word yuánxiāo 元宵 (“Lantern Festival”, but in this sentence it means a super delicious kind of sweet dumpling made of glutinous rice flour that people eat on the Lantern Festival).

The Lantern Festival is celebrated on the night of the 15th of the first month of the lunisolar Chinese calendar and marks the last day of the traditional Chinese New Year celebrations.  This year it falls on February 11.

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Malapropism of the week

Jessica Taylor & Danielle Kurtzleben, “This week in Trump’s ‘Alternative Facts’“, NPR 1/29/2017

Less than 24 hours after White House press secretary had spouted numerous falsehoods about inauguration crowd size and more, Kellyanne Conway went on NBC’s “Meet the Press” to defend him. In the process, the counselor to President Donald Trump coined a phrase that’s now deigned to follow Trump throughout his presidency — “alternative facts.”

I imagine that they meant “destined”, not “deigned”.

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The SISSILY countries

Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Yemen. We’re going to need an acronym, in case we forget which are the seven countries on the blacklist. And Language Log is here for you: we have prepared one. Somalia-Iran-Sudan-Syria-Iraq-Libya-Yemen: SISSILY. We can refer to them as the SISSILY countries. And to convince you of the threat they pose, I have prepared a table of the statistics for all of the terrorist murders that the evil citizens of those countries have perpetrated so far. The table is below. I warn you, the data are rather shocking.

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