Archive for December, 2010

Forensic copy-editing

… is needed, to figure out what happened here, in John Lahr's review of "John Guare's rollicking play 'A Free Man of Color'" (the New Yorker 11/29/2010 p. 88):

For the price of fifteen million dollars – more than two hundred million in today's money – the newly United States unexpectedly found itself with an additional eight hundred and twenty-eight thousand square miles of uncharted territory, which would eventually be divided among fourteen states.

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Sinographically transcribed English

We have seen, over and over again, that the rapid spread of English in China causes consternation among language authorities there, most recently leading to the ban of English in the media. Here's one way to deal with this problem, at least in terms of superficial appearance:

[Click to see the rest of the sign.]

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Gbagbo

In a comment on yesterday's "Mele Kalikimaka" post, Eric asked:

When is a foreign sound so alien to a language that it's "disallowed"? When does a linguist–or just a transcriptionist–decide to throw her hands up and say: "these people will never get this"?

I apologize for misleading Eric by using the word "disallowed", which he seems to have taken to mean that some authorities — linguists or "transcriptionists" — have made a conscious decision to ban certain sound-patterns, or at least to stop trying to get people to say them "correctly".  And I also need to make it clear that this has no necessary connection to what people can or can't "get".

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Mele Kalikimaka!

"Mele Kalikimaka" is Hawaiian for "Merry Christmas". Or, more precisely, it's the English phrase "Merry Christmas" as pronounced in Hawaiian. And it was the title of a hit song for Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters in 1950:

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There's also a (different) 1978 Beach Boys song, originally released as "Kona Coast", which features the same phrase: "Mele Kalikimaka / is Merry Christmas in Hawaii talk-a".

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"Wait, what?" you may be asking yourself. "Mele" for "merry", OK — obviously /l/ is the closest thing to /r/ in Hawaiian, we're used to that from stereotypes (and even facts) about Japanese and other varieties of "Engrish".  But where did that kalikimaka come from?

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Linguistic relativity, this time with 'marmalade'

Via Leiterjakab and EngrishFunny, this evidence that it's not only the Chinese who sometimes have menu-translation difficulty:

Several online Hungarian-English dictionaries validate this translation of bukta (e.g. here), but are less clear about the core meaning of lekváros (e.g. here, , here). However, an online recipe explains that "Bukta are baked desserts which can be filled with a variety of ingredients, such as túró and ground walnuts, but the most popular filling is jam".

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The case of the missing spamularity

A recent diary post by Charlie Stross  ("It's made out of meat", 12/22/2010) poses a striking paradox. Or rather, he makes a prediction about a process whose trajectory, as so far observable, seems paradoxical to me.

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On "culturomics" and "ngrams"

I'm still mulling over the blockbuster "culturomics" paper published in Science last week and ably addressed here by Geoff Nunberg and Mark Liberman. I'll have more to say about aspects of the paper having to do with the size of the English lexicon, but in the meantime let me direct you to my latest Word Routes column on the Visual Thesaurus, which takes up the more superficial question of nomenclature: both culturomics and ngram (as in the Ngram Viewer) are less than transparent to non-specialists (and even trouble some specialists). An excerpt follows below.

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English Banned in Chinese Writing

Back in April, I wrote a blog entitled "A Ban on Roman Letter Acronyms?"   In it, I discussed the proposal by the Chinese chairman of the International Federation of Translators, Huang Youyi, to purify Chinese of English expressions.  At the time, no one (outside of Chinese rulership circles) ever thought that it would really happen.  It seemed too preposterous and unworkable.  No matter how much the  language censors and purity zealots detested the look of English words and Roman letters in Chinese writing, they'd never be able to enforce such a ban.

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"Being jobsworths about it"

I learned a new word today from David Millward and Steven Swinford, "BAA 'refused offers of help clearing snow'", The Telegraph 12/21/2010:

Another senior airline executive added:"Airlines were getting frustrated at stands not being cleared. They said let's do it, we will do it ourselves and BAA said no, they would not let airlines do their job for them. They were being jobsworths about it."

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Shellacked by Boroditsky

Judging by the popular vote, I've done an epically inadequate job of holding up my end of the Economist's debate "This house believes that the language we speak shapes how we think": the Pro side is winning in a landslide, 78% to 22%.

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Fallows on "Comments and Community"

James Fallows explains why he doesn't allow comments on his blog at The Atlantic ("On Comments and Community: A New Plan?", 12/21/2010):

Unless a comment stream is actively moderated, it inevitably is ruined by bullies, hotheads, and trolls. If you feel otherwise, fine. This is what I think.
Corollary: The comment-communities that flourish, notably the Golden Horde of TN Coates, require real-time, frequent intervention by a moderator not afraid to put his stamp on the discussion.

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Genomic heteroglossia

In "Snowclones are the dark matter of journalism", 1/24/2004, I noted the spread of the phrasal template X is the dark matter of Y: "The PC is the Dark Matter of the Internet", "Global technoscience is the dark matter of social theory", "Networking is the dark matter of high-speed internet", "Terrorism is the dark matter of the civilized world", "The extraterrestrial hypothesis is the dark matter of political science and science policy in the second half of the twentieth century", "Euroscepticism is the 'dark matter' of German politics", "the Boswell Co. now stands revealed for what it is: the dark matter of 20th century California history", "Intellectual property is the “dark matter” of the corporate universe".

A search today, almost seven years later, would turn up many more: "Untested code is the dark matter of software", "Influence is the Dark Matter of the Social Media Universe", "Organized crime is the dark matter of Ohio politics", and so on. And just this morning, I learned that dark matter has at least one scientific sense outside of physics.

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One thousand Language Log posts

With this post I reach my thousandth Language Log contribution. I wrote 676 posts for the old series, before the original server died in agony in April 2008. Those were written from Santa Cruz, California (between 2003 and 2005 and in 2006-2007), from the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard (2005-2006), and from Edinburgh, Scotland (2007-2008) The old series posts are preserved in read-only mode here, with all their typos and the occasional broken link or missing image; they can be custom Google-searched here. A complete list of links to all of my posts in the old series can be found here.

Since April 2008 I've written another 323 posts in the current series, mostly from Edinburgh (a few from other places while travelling); they are all listed here. This one brings me to the round number of a thousand. It's a convenient point at which to stop and think about whether to write any more.

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