Archive for March, 2017

Sinological suffering

Since I became a Sinologist in 1972, hardly a day has passed when I didn’t spend an hour or two vainly searching for a character or expression in my vast arsenal of Chinese reference works.  The frustration of not being able to find what I’m looking for is so agonizing that I sometimes simply have to scream at the writing system for being so complicated and refractory.

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What is a vamp, and how do you re- one?

Or maybe, “What is vamping, and how could the Trump administration redo it?”  Perhaps because I was very tired, that was my reaction to this story by Nia-Malika Henderson, “April Ryan asked the most important question of the Trump presidency“, CNN 3/30/2017:

After a contentious — and some said condescending, sexist and racist — back-and-forth with White House reporter April Ryan at a press briefing Tuesday, Sean Spicer tried to get over the dust-up at the Wednesday briefing.

He called on the American Urban Radio Networks correspondent first, and the two exchanged forced pleasantries. Moving on, folks, was the clear message. Nothing to see here. We are professionals and combat happens.

But, lost amid that Tuesday exchange was the actual substance of Ryan’s question. It was an important one, which goes to the heart of where President Donald Trump finds himself — the Gallup daily tracking poll has Trump at 35%, a new low.

Ryan asked: How does this administration try to revamp its image?

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You’re a cow

From David Cragin:

I was exchanging WeChats with a friend and she called me a cow, i.e.,  “Nǐ niú de 你牛的.”  It immediately made me laugh because calling someone a cow isn’t a good way to engender warm feelings in English.  Hā 哈!, but I guessed that in Chinese it must be a compliment.

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Dan Everett at TEDxPenn

On Saturday, April 1, the TEDx series comes to the University of Pennsylvania, and the TEDxPenn website explains that the event’s thematic phrase “Rise and Run”

is intentionally polysemic—the coexistence of many possible meanings for a word or phrase. On the one hand, rise and  run is a reference to the mathematical description of slopes, positive growth, upward trends. On the other hand, rise and run can be interpreted literally, as in the case of someone who is motivated to wake up and do what he/she loves to do… ​

There are 12 strikingly varied speakers, one of whom is Dan Everett, whose topic is listed as “on conversing with the people of the Amazonian Pirahã”.

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Haba: mysterious Mandarin morpheme for “pug”

There’s a town called Hǎbātún 奤夿屯 (where tún 屯 means “village, hamlet; camp; station”) in Chāngpíng qū 昌平区 (“Changping District“) of Beijing.  The name sounds odd and the first two characters are unusual.  It is said to date back to the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) when it was a Mongol military encampment.  Southerners supposedly referred to the Mongols as “hǎbā”.

I’ve also often wondered about the origin of the name “hǎbagǒu 哈巴狗” (where gǒu 狗 means “dog”), which is the Chinese name for “pug” (it is also called bāgēquǎn 巴哥犬 [where bāgē 巴哥 literally means “ba brother” and quǎn 犬 is another word for “dog”]).  Is it possible that the hǎba 哈巴 of hǎbagǒu 哈巴狗 is related to the Hǎbā 奤夿 of Hǎbātún 奤夿屯?

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German in America

There’s a Germantown in Philadelphia and a German Village in Columbus, Ohio.  in Fredericksburg (the birthplace of Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz) and in New Braunfels, they speak Texas German, and in Amish and Old Order Mennonite communities in many states, they speak  Pennsylvania Dutch / German (Deitsch, Pennsylvania Deitsch, Pennsilfaanisch Deitsch, Hinterwäldler-Deutsch).

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Siri and flatulence

An acquaintance of mine has a new iPhone, which he carries in a pocket that is (relevantly) below waist level. He has discovered something that dramatically illustrates the difference between (i) responding to speech and (ii) responding to speech as humans do, on the basis of knowing that it is speech.

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Grammatical diversity in the New York Times crossword

Monday’s New York Times crossword is the handiwork of Tom McCoy, an undergraduate member of the Yale Grammatical Diversity Project. I wouldn’t’ve thought it possible, but he’s managed to make a coherent theme out of a nonstandard grammatical variant in American English.

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Attachment ambiguity of the week

Congressional Republicans want to fight on, but the White House says Obamacare repeal is dead”, Vox 3/26/2017:

But Mulvaney’s remarks raise a question: If “fixing the system” is a major legislative priority, why is Trump leaving it unfinished? Mulvaney’s answer — that Trump “is not willing to do what other politicians would do” — in that context actually sounds like a damning critique of the president who, it’s worth noting, went on his 13th golf outing since taking office on Sunday.

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The miracle of reading and writing Chinese characters

We have the testimony of a colleague whose ability to write Chinese characters has been adversely affected by her not being able to visualize them in her mind’s eye.  See:

Aphantasia — absence of the mind’s eye” (3/24/17)

This prompts me to ponder:  just how do people who are literate in Chinese characters recall them?

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Age, sex, and f0

I’ve recently been working with Naomi Nevler and others from Penn’s Frontotemporal Degeneration Center on quantifying the diverse effects in speech and language of various neurodegenerative conditions. As part of an effort to establish baselines, I turned to the English-language part of the “Fisher” datasets of conversational telephone speech (LDC2004S13, LDC2004T19, LDC2005S13, LDC2005T19), where we have basic demographic information for 11,971 speakers, including age and sex. These datasets comprise 11,699  short telephone conversations between strangers on assigned topics, or 23,398 conversational sides, with a total duration of 1,958.5 hours. The calls were recorded in 2003.

For this morning’s Breakfast Experiment™, I took a look at age-related changes in pitch range, as quantified by quantiles of fundamental frequency (f0) estimates. We have time-aligned transcripts, so after pitch-tracking everything, I can extract the f0 estimates for each speaker, combine them across calls if the speaker was involved in more than one call, and calculate various simple statistics. Here are the median values for the 90th, 50th, and 10th percentile of f0 estimates by decade of age from 20s to 70s. Values for female speakers are in red, and for male speakers in blue:

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Fecal Intensifiers

[This is a guest post by Brendan O’Kane, written on the evening of 3/24/17]

At a friend’s dissertation defense this morning, a certain distinguished Dutch professor emeritus, explaining the appeal of prosimetric vernacular literature to audiences in late imperial Shandong, noted that “people before about 1950 were mostly bored shitless.”

This cracked the room up, naturally, but it also seemed slightly off: in my own idiolect, I might be scared shitless, but not much else. On the other hand, something that scared the shit out of me might bore the shit out of a more jaded spectator, or cause an onlooker with a meaner sense of humor to shit themselves laughing.

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“Watch the predicate”

From Jonathan Lundell:

Can’t think of anyone to ask but LL… what on earth does this mean?

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