Archive for April, 2010

False Quotations and Fake Translations

As a Sinologist, one thing that really annoys me is when someone sanctimoniously invokes phony Orientalism to embellish their speech or writing.  One egregious example is that the Chinese "character / symbol" for "crisis" is made up of "danger" plus "opportunity."

Several days ago, Frank Chance sent me the following note:

Lao Zi Quote:

Hmmm…this doesn't seem to correspond with any part of the Laozi I know…not that it matters.

Labelling it "Lao Zi Apocrypha," I sent the card around to some friends and colleagues.

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"Begging the question": we have answers

Macy Halford, of The Book Bench at the New Yorker, wrote to me with a question about "begs the question":

Recently, one of our posts caused quite a stir by misusing the phrase (to mean “raises the question”), and many discussions ensued, the result of which was that we all realized that even though we (kind of) understand the phrase in the Latin, we really don’t understand, etymologically, the English translation—either “begs the question” or “petitions for the principle,” though the latter makes more sense. And we all wondered whether the Latin was used only in the context of formalized debate or argument. It seems like a fairly complex concept, with a complex definition—it makes me wonder why we use or misuse it at all, since the need to use it in everyday speech (or blogging) would seem not very great.

(FWIW, the offending post was apparently this one, with the original "this begs questions like …" quickly amended to "this raises questions like…")

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Oh, we got endangered languages / right here in New York City

[ Note: the San Diego wing of Language Log Plaza is about as far from NYC as you can get in the continental U.S.; I just couldn't resist the title. ]

Surely, most if not all of our devoted Language Log readers have by now noticed the recent NYT story "Listening to (and Saving) the World's Languages", about some of the work being done by the Endangered Language Alliance to document and preserve endangered languages spoken in New York City. (And in case you hadn't noticed it, there it is. Check it out.)

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Worthless grammar edicts from Harvard

Greg Mankiw, the Harvard economics professor, maintains a blog for undergraduate economics students. On it, back in 2006, he placed a guide to good economics writing. And I fear that you may already have guessed what, with sinking heart, I correctly foresaw that I would find therein.

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Twetiquette

According to John Metcalfe, "The Self-appointed Twitter Scolds", NYT 4/29/2010:

A small but vocal subculture has emerged on Twitter of grammar and taste vigilantes who spend their time policing other people’s tweets — celebrities and nobodies alike. These are people who build their own algorithms to sniff out Twitter messages that are distasteful to them — tweets with typos or flawed grammar, or written in ALLCAPS — and then send scolding notes to the offenders. They see themselves as the guardians of an emerging behavior code: Twetiquette.

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Perception test

What's the word this came from?

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Crash blossom du jour, from the Beeb

The top headline in the Business section of BBC News currently reads:

Greece fears batter markets again

Sean Purdy, who sent this one in to Language Log Plaza, writes, "However hard I try to parse this correctly, I cannot suppress the mental image of traders buying and selling the raw materials for Yorkshire pud – and scaring the Greeks in the process."

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Foreign Accent Syndrome

A report from last Tuesday's Guardian begins thus:

Sarah Colwill initially found it amusing when a series of migraines caused her native West Country accent to be displaced by a Chinese lilt. But after a month, the joke is wearing thin for the 35-year-old IT project co-ordinator. "I have never been to China," she says. "It is very frustrating and I just want my own voice back."

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Eyjafjallajökull FTW

The explanation, from Aspen Swartz:

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Guide dogs = gay dogs?

Gordon Campbell sent in a pointer to a recent article by Sarah Mennie, "Gay dogs not welcome, diner told", [Adelaide] Sunday Mail, 4/24/2010:

Woodville North man Ian Jolly, 57, was barred from dining at Grange restaurant Thai Spice in May last year after a staff member mistook his guide dog Nudge for a "gay dog", the tribunal heard this week.

A statement given by restaurant owners Hong Hoa Thi To and Anh Hoang Le said one of the waiters had understood Mr Jolly's partner Chris Lawrence "to be saying she wanted to bring a gay dog into the restaurant".

"The staff genuinely believed that Nudge was an ordinary pet dog which had been desexed to become a gay dog," the statement said.

Mr Jolly and Ms Lawrence were refused entry to the restaurant – which displays a "guide dogs welcome" sign – even after providing staff with a guide dogs fact card.

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Acoustic ecologist

A guest post by Joe Campbell:

Gordon Hempton, aka SoundTracker, is amazing. Listen to this episode of On Point Radio, or watch this short YouTube clip:

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Deciphering the Rising Sun

Following up on earlier LL posts about language training in the U.S. military (e.g. "The interpreter shortage", 10/17/2005; "Linguistics in 1940", 3/11/2007) Jim Gordon sent a pointer to Roger Dingman's Deciphering the Rising Sun: Navy and Marine Corps Codebreakers, Translators and Interpreters in the Pacific War, Naval Institute Press, 2009. From a review by Ian Nish at the Japan Society:

Professor Dingman has based this enlightening study on extended interviews with former officers in the US Navy and Marine Corps who are now in their upper 80s. But he has also made much use of the unpublished memoirs to be found in the Navy Language School Collection in the Norlin Library, University of Colorado at Boulder where they were trained. It is a tribute to the US government – and the British for that matter – that they appreciated the importance of training linguists during the Asia-Pacific war and had the foresight to recruit and train personnel not of Japanese ancestry to study the Japanese language with a view to serving as language officers. Dingman concludes that it was a successful experiment and draws a painful parallel with the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq:

“In June 2002 America teetered on the cusp of a war in Iraq that has lasted longer than the titanic struggle which the World War II language officers fought… It led to swift military victory, but true peace has proven elusive in the disastrously mismanaged, occupation that followed… those in our armed forces charged with carrying out their orders lacked knowledge of Iraq’s history and culture and of the language of its people. (pp. 249-50)”

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The perils of polysemy

Among the many classic cartoons at Barnacle Press is Ed Carey's The Troubles of Dictionary Jaques [sic], from 1912-1913.

The strip's premise: Jaques is dependent on a dictionary for the interpretation of one critical word or phrase in each instruction he's given, while being unaware of the existence of polysemy and completely devoid of common sense.

In the example from which the illustrative detail on the right is taken, Jaques' employer introduces the new kitchen maid and tells him to "present her to the chef". Jaques looks up present:

"Zee deectionary say 'present' mean 'exhibit to view' — now I look up 'exhibit' Ah! Ze word 'exhibit' mean  – 'force into notice'. I do so at once."

But it turns out that he wasn't actually supposed to shove her into the kitchen, grasp her firmly and lift her up so that the chef is forced to notice her.

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Birtherism, socialism, and craziness

Christopher Beam, in a Slate magazine last Wednesday (published while I was winging my way back to the UK by a modified air route far south of Iceland), connects the strange business of birtherism (the political perversion of believing, or pretending to believe, that President Obama doesn't have a US birth certificate and thus isn't constitutionally allowed to serve) to lexical semantics:

Birtherism is here to stay. And not because more people are going crazy, but because crazy has been redefined. Birtherism isn't the only example. Consider how conservatives accuse Obama of peddling "socialism." Sure, some of them genuinely think that Obama is going to usher in a new Soviet state in which the government owns all means of production. But most right-wingers use it as shorthand for government overreach. So now that's what "socialism" means.

There is a fairly major difference between birtherism and the socialism charge: Birtherism has been disproved by facts. But they're similar in the way they get tossed around without much connection to their original meaning.

He isn't very clear in the way he puts this: "crazy has been redefined" isn't quite right, because everyone agrees that craziness is irrationality or mental disorder of a sort that gives rise to unpredictably strange behavior. But the idea that the word socialism has actually changed its denotation in modern American English might not be so crazy.

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Mair on pinyin on BBC Radio 4

BBC Radio 4's Word of Mouth program for 4/20/2010 deals with relations between Mandarin and English.  Victor's segment of the program is about the role of pinyin.  LL commenters may find a nit or two to pick with the program's online self-description, but Victor thinks they did a good job in weaving the interviews together to create the program:

Chris Ledgard looks at the Chinese and English languages, and the meeting point between the two. Will the Chinese language be affected by the growing influence of English? Pinyin is the Chinese method of writing Chinese characters in our alphabet. It produces a simplified version of Chinese for children to learn, and is also used for texting, slang and to make it possible to type on a keyboard. It also helps the rest of the world to understand Chinese words. Beijing is a pinyin word, for example. Will the use of Chinese characters eventually die out as the influence of pinyin and English is felt there? And we hear about the language war raging in Singapore, the only country in Asia with English as its first language, between standard English and Singlish, the local variant. Contributors include William Zhou, Chen "Cathy" Liu,"Pinyin Joe"- Joe Katz, Victor Mair and Singaporean podcaster extraordinaire "mr brown", aka Kin Mun Lee.

Unfortunately, the online version of the program will only be available for a few more days. (Why? I have no idea.)

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