Archive for June, 2014

Ben Zimmer on Jeopardy

"Jersey City man to compete on Jeopardy", Hudson Reporter 6/29/30:

Ben Zimmer, a linguist and language columnist from Jersey City, will compete on Jeopardy! on June 30 at 7 p.m. on WABC-TV.



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Is the Urdu script on the verge of dying?

Hindi-Urdu, also referred to as Hindustani, is the classic case of a digraphia, so much so that there has been a long-standing controversy over whether they are one language or two.  Their colloquial spoken forms are nearly identical, but when written down, the one in the Devanāgarī script, the other in the Nastaʿlīq script, they have a very different look and "feel".

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对 (duì)

Listening to people around Beijing over the past few days, I've noticed a couple of things about a common Chinese word. The Wiktionary gloss for 对 (dui4) suggests the pattern:

Yes! Correct! I agree!; The word is used often in spoken language. It is common to repeat the word three times when you want to make clear that you understand and agree.

My impression is that a single duì is common, and three-fold repetition is also common, and sometimes even five in a row (grouped 3+2?), but not two or four. (I think I heard a double duì once, but it was more like two phrases "duì, duì".)

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What I look like

… to an enterprising Beijing street artist, who sketched most of this while walking unnoticed alongside me, and then offered to sell it to me while adding the last few strokes and the caption. Shengli Feng cheerfully bargained him down to a third of the asking price.

The air was good — blue sky and clouds were visible, which I gather is rare for Beijing these days — but it was quite hot and humid, so the artist gracefully ignored a few beads of sweat.

I haven't noticed the prominent brow ridges in the mirror or in photographs, but it's true that my genographic profile is 4% Neanderthal…


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Supreme Court steps away from fetishization of dictionaries, strikes a blow for usage and practice

Below is a guest post by Jason Merchant:

Yesterday, the US Supreme Court announced its decision in the case NLRB v. Noel Canning, a case that turns on the interpretation of the Recess Appointments clause, Art. II sec. 2, cl. 3 of the US Constitution:

"The President shall have Power to fill up all Vacancies that may happen during the Recess of the Senate, by granting Commissions which shall expire at the End of their next Session."

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Keith Ablow, the Fox News Channel's resident expert on psychiatry, on Outnumbered, 6/26/2014, explaining why the World Cup is a plot to distract the masses from Benghazi or whatever:

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I'm suspect. Uh I am suspect. Because here's the thing,
Um why at a time when there're so many national issues that-
and international issues that are of such prominence,
I- I'm a little suspicious of yet another bread and circus routine.
Let's roll out the marijuana, pull back the laws, and
get people even more crazy about yet another entertainment event.

Since this is Language Log rather than Paranoid Politics Log, my interest here is not the content of Dr. Ablow's outburst, but its form: specifically, his use of suspect to mean suspicious.

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Greater and lesser conveniences

From Facebook, via Victor Steinbok, comes this notice from Shun Tak Holdings Property Management Limited:

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The concept of "mother" in linguistics

I began drafting this post around Mother's Day, which we recently observed, but got distracted by other things.  This is an old topic that I've been thinking about for years.  Namely, I've long been intrigued by the use of mǔ 母 ("mother") in linguistic terms, such as zìmǔ 字母 ("letter", lit., "character mother") (e.g., sānshíliù zìmǔ 三十六字母 ["36 initial consonants"]), shēngmǔ 声母 ("initial", lit., "sound mother") and yùnmǔ 韵母 ("final", lit., "rime mother").  The first two go back to the Song period (960-1279), but I don't know how old the latter two are. See here, here, and here for references.

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Usage masochism

I think it is time to make public my private suspicion that most of the customers for prescriptive usage guides are masochists. They want to be punished for imaginary grammar crimes. I plan to speak out. My paper at the Cambridge English Usage Guides Symposium this Friday afternoon will be entitled "The usage game: catering to perverts." Abstract here.

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Value added

From Eric Baković:

A paper of mine that was just published included the following sentence in the abstract, helpfully "corrected" by an overzealous copy-editor:

The focus [of this chapter] is on two main goals of phonological description and analysis: the establishment of generalizations about which members of a set of posited phonological constituents are irreducibly basic and that are derived, and the establishment of generalizations about the contexts in which phonological constituents are and are not found.

Interestingly, virtually the same sentence is repeated in the introduction, with "which are derived" intact.

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PLOS interview with John Ioannidis

Erica Kritsberg, "From One to One Million Article Views: Q&A with Author John Ioannidis", PLOS Bogs 6/23/2014:

"Why Most Published Research Findings Are False", the PLOS Medicine article by John Ioannidis, surpassed one million views late April 2014, the first PLOS article – research or other – to reach this milestone.

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Chinese Chelsea

Janet Williams sent in this language selection panel from the official Sri Lanka Tourism website:

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Ideas and actions

I recently read through Marc Hauser et al., "The Mystery of Language Evolution", Frontiers in Psychology 2014, which expresses a strongly skeptical view on every aspect of the topic, including this one:

[S]tudies of nonhuman animals provide virtually no relevant parallels to human linguistic communication, and none to the underlying biological capacity.

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