Archive for May, 2016

(Whether) to dispose (of) or not to dispose (of)

From Florent Moncomble, a language academic in France:

My father came back recently from a trip to Japan and was intrigued by the following notice, which he found in his Tokyo hotel room one day. He gets by in English but could not make out its meaning and was wondering whether the fault lay with him or with the message — obviously the latter is the case. My interpretation is that this sign is left by the cleaning staff to apologise whenever they are unsure whether or not to dispose of (half-)used equipment such as towels and toiletries, and leave them in the room.

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What’s in a name — Pikachu, Beikaciu, Pikaqiu?

Since I began writing blogs for Language Log around ten years ago, I have never received so many tips on what to write about as I have in response to the furor that has arisen over Nintendo’s plan to change the Chinese names for some of the characters in their immensely popular Pokémon (ポケモン < Pokettomonsutā ポケットモンスター [“Pocket Monster”]) game series.

For example, much loved Pikachu (Pikachū ピカチュウ) was originally called Bei2kaat1ciu1 比卡超 in Hong Kong, which is very close to its Japanese name, Pikachu.  But now Nintendo wants to get rid of Bei2kaat1ciu1 比卡超 and force the people of Hong Kong to use the Mandarin name Píkǎqiū 皮卡丘.  This same policy extends to more than a hundred Pokemon characters, who will be renamed in accordance with Mandarin transcriptions.  You can imagine how alien that will sound to Cantonese speakers who have grown up with Pokemon characters having Cantonese names now to lose those intimate appellations in favor of names that have a Mandarin ring to them.

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What other people might put it

depp

Comedian Doug Stanhope is unable to sleep at night over the way his friend Johnny Depp is being pilloried as a wife-abuser by Amber Heard (she says he hit her in the face with a cell phone); so he did the obvious thing any friend would do: he submitted an expletive-laced article about his angst over the situation to The Wrap. (It has 9 shits, 7 fucks, and one asshole, all cloaked in partial dashification by The Wr––‘s cautious c–nsors.) But this is Language Log, not Celebrity Embarrassment Log, and my topic here is syntax. Stanhope and his girlfriend Bingo “have watched Amber Heard f––– with him at his weakest — or watched him at his weakest from being f–––ed with,” and he now believes it is time to “tell the f–––ng truth” about his friend:

Bingo and I were at Johnny’s house for most of that Saturday until just before the alleged assault. We assumed initially that his dour mood was because of his mother’s death the day before. But he opened up in the most vulnerable of ways that it was not only his mother, but that Amber was now going to leave him, threatening to lie about him publicly in any and every possible duplicitous way if he didn’t agree to her terms. Blackmail is what I would imagine other people might put it, including the manner in which he is now being vilified.

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Unnecessariat

Anne Amnesia, “Unnecessariat“, More Crows than Eagles, 5/10/2016:

In 2011, economist Guy Standing coined the term “precariat” to refer to workers whose jobs were insecure, underpaid, and mobile, who had to engage in substantial “work for labor” to remain employed, whose survival could, at any time, be compromised by employers (who, for instance held their visas) and who therefore could do nothing to improve their lot. The term found favor in the Occupy movement, and was colloquially expanded to include not just farmworkers, contract workers, “gig” workers, but also unpaid interns, adjunct faculty, etc. Looking back from 2016, one pertinent characteristic seems obvious: no matter how tenuous, the precariat had jobs. The new dying Americans, the ones killing themselves on purpose or with drugs, don’t. Don’t, won’t, and know it.

Here’s the thing: from where I live, the world has drifted away. We aren’t precarious, we’re unnecessary. The money has gone to the top. The wages have gone to the top. The recovery has gone to the top. And what’s worst of all, everybody who matters seems basically pretty okay with that. The new bright sparks, cheerfully referred to as “Young Gods” believe themselves to be the honest winners in a new invent-or-die economy, and are busily planning to escape into space or acquire superpowers, and instead of worrying about this, the talking heads on TV tell you its all a good thing- don’t worry, the recession’s over and everything’s better now, and technology is TOTES AMAZEBALLS!

The article starts by comparing the rise in suicide and overdose deaths to the history of AIDS deaths in the 1980s, and her punchline is this:

If I still don’t have your attention, consider this: county by county, where life expectancy is dropping survivors are voting for Trump.

Since this is Language Log and not Political Analysis Log, I’ll let you digest the article on your own, and turn my attention to the word formation principles behind unnecessariat.

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Nothing to fear but… what?

In advance of tonight’s Game 7 in the NBA Western Conference finals between the Golden State Warriors and the Oklahoma City Thunder, the New York Times recalls a similar Game 7 faced by the Chicago Bulls in 1998:

That spring, the top-seeded Bulls were taken to a seventh game by the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference finals. Between Games 6 and 7, the Bulls’ coach, Phil Jackson, huddled with his players and told them not to fear failing.

“The fear is not losing,” Jackson told them. “The fear is not producing the effort needed.”

Phil Jackson is notoriously enigmatic (they don’t call him the Zen master for nothing), but this pronouncement is particularly tough to unpack.

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June 4, 198brew

A tweet from Cherie Chan:

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Bora

Last Thursday, during LREC 2016, 16 participants from ELRA and LDC had a festive dinner at a restaurant named Na Burji. On the drive from Portorož, we had a discussion about what the restaurant’s name means — our first guess, stimulated by the extreme switchbacks we traversed as the road climbed steeply from the coastal plain towards Nova Vas nad Dragonjo, was that “burji” is somehow cognate with berg.

But as the restaurant’s website explains, it “earned its name due to exposure to famous Bora wind”. This of course raises the question of where the word bora comes from.

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Why “zebra”?

So asked Michael Rank in the comments section to this post:

Triple topolectal reprimand” (5/29/16)

That’s a very good question.

It’s a common expression among Wuhan speakers, a pet phrase for men and women alike, almost as though it were a sort of mantra or dharani.  If you ask them what it means, they will probably tell you that they themselves don’t know, in which case you might get the impression that it’s a modal or expletive without specific semantic content.

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Triple topolectal reprimand

One of the most annoying things about being in China is that people will cut in front of you in lines when you’re waiting for a bus, to buy a train ticket, or whatever. If you wish to achieve your aim, sooner or later you learn that you have to take defensive / offensive measures (I learned to spread my legs wide and put my elbows out). I also realized that it would help if I called the queue cutters out — loudly — in Mandarin. But what if the queue cutter pretends that he / she doesn’t understand Mandarin? Watch:

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Do humans actually understand speech?

Or are they just programmed to act like they do? Today’s SMBC asks (and answers) the analogous question about emotions:


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“Chinese helicopter” under attack

Just a couple of weeks ago, we learned about 19 Singaporean expressions that had been newly added to the OED:

New Singaporean and Hong Kong terms in the OED” (5/12/16)

Among these expressions was “Chinese helicopter”, which was characterized as “derogatory” and defined as “a Singaporean whose schooling was conducted in Mandarin Chinese and who has limited knowledge of English”.

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Ask Language Log: why is “whether or not” more frequent?

Ton van der Wouden asks:

The Google Ngram viewer shows a tenfold increase in the frequency of the string “whether or not”. Can the readers of language log think of any explanation for this growth? Can it perhaps be traced back to some prescriptive source? Is it perhaps accompanied by a comparable decrease of the frequency of the variant with postposed “or not”, as in “whether you like it or not” — a string that is too long a search term for the Ngram viewer.

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Once more on the mystery of the national spelling bee

Looks like this year’s winners are again co-champions and of Indian (South Asian) origin. Guessing from their names, one of them has a Karnataka heritage and the other an Andhra background.

Quoting from “National spelling bee ends in a tie for third consecutive year” (USA Today, 5/27/16):

For the third year in a row, the Scripps National Spelling Bee has ended with two champions.

Nihar Janga, 11, of Austin, Texas, and Jairam Hathwar, 13, of Painted Post, N.Y., were declared co-champions Thursday night after fighting to a draw during 39 rounds of competition.

“It was just insane,” Jairam* said as he and Nihar triumphantly hoisted the golden winner’s cup into the air.

“I’m just speechless,” Nihar said. “I’m only in the fifth grade.”

—-

*The younger brother of 2014 co-champion, Sriram Hathwar.

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