Archive for May, 2017

Conjunctions considered harmful

Or not. Andrew Mayeda, “World Bank’s Star Economist Is Sidelined in War Over Words“, Bloomberg 5/25/2017:

The World Bank’s chief economist has been stripped of his management duties after researchers rebelled against his efforts to make them communicate more clearly, including curbs on the written use of “and.” […]

A study by Stanford University’s Literary Lab in 2015 found the bank’s use of language has become more “codified, self-referential, and detached from everyday language” since the bank’s board of governors held their inaugural meeting in 1946. The study coined the term “Bankspeak,” a vague “technical code” that symbolized the lender’s organizational drift.

In an email to staff obtained by Bloomberg, Romer argued the World Development Report, one of the bank’s flagship publications, “has to be narrow to penetrate deeply,” comparing his vision for the report to a knife. “To drive home the importance of focus, I’ve told the authors that I will not clear the final report if the frequency of ‘and’ exceeds 2.6 percent,” said Romer, citing the percentage of the word’s use in World Bank documents analyzed as part of the “Bankspeak” report.

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From “barbarian” to “very”

Earlier this week, I wrote a post titled “‘Little Man’ the eating machine” (5/22/17), in which I pointed out that “Man” here does not mean “(hu)man” or “male human”, but that it signifies “(southern) barbarian”, with extended meanings of “rough; reckless; fierce; rude; unreasoning; unruly; bullying”.  I also noted that this mán 蛮 has another set of meanings:  “quite; rather; somewhat; very”.

In the sixth comment to the post, liuyao wrote:

I was hoping VHM would do a linguistic/philological analysis of 蛮 in the sense of “very”. Given that it was originally a derogatory term for “barbarians” in the south (possibly Austroasiatics that have long been displaced or assimilated), how did it come about that the southern topolects (or when they speak their variants of Mandarin) have this character or word for “very”? Are there alternative characters for this morpheme?

I will now attempt to answer all of liuyao’s questions.

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Political pun of the month


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Yes indeed

Mythili Sampathkumar, “Donald Trump and Mike Pence approval ratings hit new low in latest Fox News poll“, The Independent 5/26/2017:

Voters polled were also asked “do you think America’s best days are ahead of us or behind us?” A majority – 62 per cent – said yes, they are.

[h/t Michael Glazer]

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Attribution of the WannaCry ransomware to Chinese speakers

The notorious WannaCry malware infestation began on Friday, May 12, 2017 and spread rapidly throughout the world, infecting hundreds of thousands of computers and causing major damage.  Speculation concerning the identity of the perpetrators focused on North Korea, but the supposed connection was never convincingly demonstrated, and there were no other serious suspects.

Yesterday, Jon Condra, John Costello, and Sherman Chu published a stunning report which suggests that the authors of WannaCry — or someone they hired — spoke fluent Chinese:

Linguistic Analysis of WannaCry Ransomware Messages Suggests Chinese-Speaking Authors” (Flashpoint [5/25/17])

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Whistled language

In “Transcendent Tonality” (11/5/15), we examined this topic a couple of years ago.  That post focused more on the philosophical and ethereal aspects of this type of communication, although it also introduced some of the basics of interhuman whistling and its congruence with melodic musicality.

Additional research takes us further toward understanding the linguistic, neuroscientific, and evolutionary biological dimensions of articulate whistling, as reported in this BBC article:

The beautiful languages of the people who talk like birds:  Their unusual whistled speech may reveal what humanity’s first words sounded like. (David Robson, 5/25/17)

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Greeter skillz

Today’s Zits:

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“Intelligent transportation communication systems”?

This morning’s email brought an invitation to contribute to a “Special Issue on Intelligent Transportation Communication Systems” (for this journal). It took me a little while to figure out that conversing with cars (which I’m definitely in favor of) was not what they had in mind. And this process  reminded me of how difficult it can be for humans — never mind machines — to figure out how to parse complex nominals in English. (See “The Stress and Structure of Modified Noun Phrases in English” for some antique thoughts on the subject…)

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Yay us

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Resisting reunification

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Donald Trump: Cognitive decline or TDS?

Sharon Begley, “Trump wasn’t always so linguistically challenged. What could explain the change?“, STAT 5/23/2017:

STAT reviewed decades of Trump’s on-air interviews and compared them to Q&A sessions since his inauguration. The differences are striking and unmistakable.  

Research has shown that changes in speaking style can result from cognitive decline. STAT therefore asked experts in neurolinguistics and cognitive assessment, as well as psychologists and psychiatrists, to compare Trump’s speech from decades ago to that in 2017; they all agreed there had been a deterioration, and some said it could reflect changes in the health of Trump’s brain.

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Chinese emoji, with a twist

Adrienne LaFrance has an eye-opening article about “The Westernization of Emoji” in The Atlantic (5/22/17).  Here’s the summary statement at the beginning:

The takeout box and the fortune cookie are perceived as emblems of Chinese culture, when they’re actually central to the American experience of it.

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Homonyms

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