Archive for Style and register

Why electronic machine translation services sometimes seem to fail

The inability of Google Translate, Microsoft Translator, Baidu Fanyi, and other translation services to correctly render jī nián dàjí 鸡年大吉 (“may the / your year of the chicken be greatly auspicious!”) in various languages points up a vital distinction that I have long wanted to make, and now is as good a time as ever.  Namely, just as you could not expect these translation services to handle Cantonese, Shanghainese, Taiwanese, etc. (unless specifically and separately programmed to do so), we should not expect them to deal with Literary Sinitic / Classical Chinese (LS / CC).

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“Just let some joy smoke sift into your system”

In “The Road to Wazoo“, I mentioned a striking 1919 advertisement for Prince Albert Tobacco . What was striking was partly the drawing and partly the text:

PRINCE ALBERT

the national joy smoke

Say, you’ll have a streak of smokeluck that’ll put pep-in-your-smokemotor, all right, if you’ll ring-in with a jimmy pipe or cigarette papers and nail some Prince Albert for packing!

Just between ourselves, you never will wise-up to high-spot-smoke-joy until you can call a pipe or a home made cigarette by its first name, then, to hit the peak-of-pleasure you land square on that two-fisted-man-tobacco, Prince Albert!

Well, sir, you’ll be so all-fired happy you’ll want to get a photograph of yourself breezing up the pike with your smokethrottle wide open! Quality make Prince Albert so different, so appealing. And, P A. can’t bite or parch. Both are cut out by our exclusive patented process!

Right now while the going’s good you get out your old jimmy pipe or the “papers” and land on some P. A. for what ails your particular smokeappetite.

AG commented that

That ad is incredible. “Mad Men” is an understatement. That’s like something you’d get if a roomful of Wodehouses threw typewriters at each others’ heads during a gas leak

The ad’s language range some kind of bell for me, and this comment from Catherine Arnott Smith nailed the source:

That ad is purest Babbittry, except that the poet Chum Frink, in Babbitt, had to wait until 1922.

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How wirelessly to hack

You don’t think the ridiculous split-infinitive avoidance contortions at my favorite magazine could have started being exaggerated just as a sort of private joke on me, do you? I have reported many times on the absurd syntax that The Economist is prepared to countenance rather than ignore its cowardly advice of its style guide (“The ban [on split infinitives] is pointless. Unfortunately, to see it broken is so annoying to so many people that you should observe it”). A leader on internet security (“Breaching-point“) in the Christmas double issue (December 24, 2016) tells us, in what I think is not just unstylish but actually a violation of normal English syntax:

At a computer-security conference in 2015, researchers demonstrated how wirelessly to hack a car made by Jeep, spinning its steering wheel or slamming on its brakes.

How wirelessly to hack ?? Unbelievable. (You can find the article online with a Google search on "how wirelessly to hack". As I write, it is the only hit: no one has ever written that misbegotten four-word sequence in the prior history of the world.*

Nobody who hadn’t been driven into a state of nervous cluelessness by bad style advice could think that was the right order of words. Part of the reason is that how often functions as an initial modifier constituent of an adjective or adverb phrase.

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“Bad” borrowings in North Korean

Last week, the Daily NK (from Seoul) published an article by Kang Mi Jin about “Loanwords frequently appearing in the Rodong Sinmun” (11/25/16), South Korean original here.  Rodong Sinmun is the official newspaper of the North Korean Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea.

A source in Ryanggang Province told Daily NK on November 21 that the authorities have been delivering public lectures on the need to “actively fight to eradicate the bad habit of using foreign languages, including words of Japanese origin and the language of the puppet regime (South Korea).” However, many have pointed out the increasingly frequent usage of foreign words in the Rodong Sinmun.

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Syntactic tunneling

From Harry Asche:

I am a tunnel engineer, and the patron saint of tunnelling is St Barbara.  Her saint’s day is the 4th of December.  I am a bit of a tunnel nut, so on a visit to a church in Europe, I bought a St Barbara card, printed on a handy credit-card sized piece of plastic.  

Here is the Prayer to St Barbara, transcribed exactly:

“O God, who among the other miracles of Your power, have given even to the weaker sex the victory of martyrdom, grant, we beseech You, that we, who are celebrating the heavenly birthday of Blessed Barbara, Your Virgin and Martyr, may, by her example, draw nearer to you.  Amen.”  

I am greatly impressed by the complexity of the first sentence.  The core is “O God grant that we may draw nearer to you.”  But this is interrupted by no less than six additional clauses.  “That we” and “may” live in little islands on their own.  

Is this a result of translation from the Latin?  I did five years of Latin at school and it had a lasting negative affect on my ability to write English.

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Trevor Noah reflects on language and identity

In my introductory undergraduate course on English words, and in most undergraduate introductory courses on linguistics, students are invited to reflect on language and identity—how the way you speak communicates information about who you are—which they are typically very interested in. This isn’t my beat, professionally speaking, but as a linguist I have a duty to help my students think through some of these issues (and, if they get interested, point them in the right direction to get really educated). To get started, I often play this one-minute clip of a Meshach Taylor Fresh Air interview from 1990, which is usually a good starting point for some discussion.

But Fresh Air (yes I’m a Terry Gross fangirl) also recently ran an interview with the biracial South African host of the Daily Show, Trevor Noah, which contained this ten-minute motherlode of a reflection on multilingualism, language choice, racism, acceptable targets of mimicry, vocabulary size, Trump’s communicative abilities, resentment of accented speech… whew. I’m just going to leave it here for your edification and enjoyment. Maybe one of our more sociolinguistically expert Language Loggers will provide some more detailed commentary later. For my part — well, I just invite you to think about what kind of 500-word essay you’d write for a Ling 101 class with this 10-minute clip as your prompt.

To hear the whole interview, or read the transcript, visit the NPR Fresh Air page.

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Choosing their pronouns for oneself

The following sentence can be found (as of 15 September 2016) in this Wikipedia article about the effects of rape on the victim:

Sometimes in an effort to shield oneself from believing such a thing could happen to their loved one, a supporter will make excuses for why the event occurred.

The clash in pronoun choice (the switch from one to their) makes this clearly anomalous. What exactly could have led to its being written? I think at least two unease-promoting factors are involved.

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Systematic wanting

Says Bagehot, the pseudonym-cloaked correspondent of The Economist who writes a page of comment on British affairs every week (25 June 2016, p. 27 in Brexit-delayed UK edition; not present in the US edition dated June 25):

As early as January a top Brexiteer freely admitted to Bagehot that his campaign planned to turn the public against its leaders; it wanted systematically to delegitimise Britain’s pro-EU political, bureaucratic and business elites.

Is that the first time you’ve heard anyone talking about systematic wanting? It’s a first for me. But of course The Economist is just sticking to its dreadful policy of syntactic self-harm, by mechanically moving adverbs to the left so that they don’t follow to in an infinitival complement.

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Don’t be awkward

Mark Liberman’s discussion of an absurd modifier placement rule in the Associated Press Style Book reminded me of an ancient and not particularly funny joke that, the way I first heard it, is based on an offensive stereotype of gay men. I was going to explain on the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s language blog Lingua Franca a couple of months ago, but to my surprise I was forbidden to do so. The Chronicle lives in abject terror of offending gays or blacks or women or Asians or prudes or any other identifiable section of its readership that might take offense at something (and they may be right to be afraid: this week I was accused of ageism by a commenter for using the phrase “between 60 and 70 years old” as part of a description of an imaginary person). I’ll tell you here on Language Log what I was going to say, and you can decide.

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Economy of expression

Flying back from Vienna on Austrian Airlines yesterday, I saw the following notices printed on the back of the seat in front of me:

Gurte während des sitzens geschlossen halten*

Fasten seat belt while seated

*some airlines begin this sentence with a “bitte”, which would make the German even longer

Die schwimmweste befindet sich unter ihrem sitz

Life vest under your seat

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The love organ of many names

British comedian Richard Herring is the author of a 2003 book entitled Talking Cock: A Celebration of Man and his Manhood, so he naturally seized upon the republicization opportunity provided by the recent story of the world’s first successful penis transplant. He made it the topic of his weekly humor column in The Metro, the trashy free newspaper that I sometimes reluctantly peruse in my constant search for linguistic developments that might be of interest to Language Log readers.

In a bravura display of diversity of lexical choice, Herring contrived to use a different euphemism for the anatomical organ every time he could find an excuse for mentioning it, which, believe me, was a lot. And he left me pondering a serious lexicographical question: just how many euphemisms are there for the appendage in question?

[Unusually, this post is restricted to adult males. Please click “Read the rest of this entry” to confirm that you are male and over 18.]

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Surfer-inflected official Chinese Twitter talk

Emily Rauhala has an entertaining, enlightening article about a startlingly improbable new kind of PRC officialese:

‘Ever been to Tibet bro?’ A nationalistic Chinese Twitter account goes rogue” (WP, 6/1/16)

The article is so well written that I wouldn’t want to try to steal Rauhala’s thunder, so I will just quote the first part, and encourage you to read the rest, including clicking on the embedded links, some of which are hilarious (bear in mind that the funniest links go directly to official Chinese government posts).

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Elaborate interiors and plain language

In “The shape of things to come” (5/13/2016) and “Trump the Thing Explainer” (3/16/2016), I wondered why Donald Trump’s spartan linguistic style is so different in character from his taste in interior design, which seems to be firmly placed in the tradition of elaborate artificiality that flows from 18th-century Roccoco and 19th-century Beaux Arts to the fantastic excesses of America’s last Gilded Age:

Donald Trump’s New York apartment James Garfield’s tomb
The Vanderbilts’ Marble House in Newport RI

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