Archive for October, 2013

Better directly: unh?

Anyone who loves language will surely cut a lot of slack for a magazine that will describe the Sunday Assemblies (increasingly popular non-religious Sunday gatherings of atheists in England) as "non-prophet organizations" (The Economist, 26 October 2013, p.34). It remains my favorite magazine, and its delicious puns are only part of the reason. But what the hell is going on with language like this (same issue, p.15)?

This newspaper has argued before that it is better directly to tax investors, workers and consumers.

Better directly? What does that mean? I had to go back a few words and re-read.

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Other people's divisions

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Za stall in Newtown

Together with his "greetings from small-town Japan", Chris Pickel sent in this photograph of a sign, which was put up in his neighborhood for the aki-matsuri 秋祭り ("autumn festival").

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Legal scope again

According to 35 USC § 271 (a):

Except as otherwise provided in this title, whoever without authority makes, uses, offers to sell, or sells any patented invention, within the United States or imports into the United States any patented invention during the term of the patent therefor, infringes the patent.

A petition for a writ of certiorari, dealing in part with the semantic interpretation of this sentence, is now pending before the Supreme Court. The critical question is how to interpret the adverbial adjunct "within the United States" as applied to the phrase "offers to sell". Does it constrain the location of the offering, or the location of the selling, or perhaps both?

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Buckwheat noodles enema and other delectables

Coming off our "Dynamic stew" high, it is a bit of a letdown to encounter "buckwheat noodles enema" on the menu of a Shanxi restaurant in Beijing.

Fuchsia Dunlop introduces us to this and other exotic delicacies in her "Fancy a buckwheat noodle enema?"

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The Gladwell pivot

Below is a guest post by Mark Seidenberg on Malcolm Gladwell's recent book, David and Goliath, which promotes the idea that apparent disadvantages are often actually advantages, and in particular suggests that dyslexia might be be Good For You.


This piece is commentary on a chapter about dyslexia in Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book. I don’t follow his work closely, and the book is being reviewed and critiqued everywhere, but I thought the chapter merited a response from somebody, like me, who studies dyslexia and works with local advocacy groups for dyslexics and their families. The chapter deserves s a line-by-line analysis; what I’ve written only mentions the main issues. The document incorporates several key points that were handed to me by Maryellen MacDonald, for which I thank her, a lot.

__________________________Mark Seidenberg
__________________________Language and Cognitive Neuroscience Lab
__________________________University of Wisconsin-Madison

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Prospective aspect

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The multilingual name of a Taiwanese baseball team

In Tainan, Taiwan, there's an amateur sports team that calls itself the Yěqiú rén bàngqiú duì 野球人棒球隊, the English version of which is "Yakyuman Baseball Team"

Here's their Facebook page.

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Dynamic stew

A Korean restaurateur, trying to make his menu more accessible for foreign customers, came up with bewildering English translations of some dishes.

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Freedom for Q

Yasmine Seale discusses the (legendary and real) history of the Turkish alphabet: "Q v. K", LRB Blog, 10/16/2013. I was interested to learn that this version of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk's signature, actually designed by the Armenian calligrapher Hagop Çerçiyan, is "one of the most popular tattoos in Turkey":

There are some famous American signatures, but I've never seen any of them used as a tattoo.

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English tips from Li Yang, noted wife-beater and pedagogue

Crazy English: crazier than you imagined!

An anonymous tipster sent me this photograph taken in a washroom at the Kunming Airport:

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Cannibal Cupertino

Sent in by Molshri Ezekiel via David Donnell:

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Speaker-change offsets

In Meg Wilson's post on marmoset vs. human conversational turn-taking,  I learned about Tanya Stivers et al., "Universals and cultural variation in turn-taking in conversation", PNAS 2009, which compared response offsets to polar ("yes-no") questions in 10 languages. Here's their plot of the data for English:

Based on examination of a Dutch corpus, they argue that "the use of question–answer sequences is a reasonable proxy for turn-taking more generally"; and in their cross-language data, they found that "the response timings for each language, although slightly skewed to the right, have a unimodal distribution with a mode offset for each language between 0 and +200 ms, and an overall mode of 0 ms. The medians are also quite uniform, ranging from 0 ms (English, Japanese, Tzeltal, and Yélî-Dnye) to +300 ms (Danish, ‡Ākhoe Hai‖om, Lao) (overall cross-linguistic median +100 ms)."

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